The most exciting and provocative drama in town in Jerome Lawrence's and Robert E. Lee's at the National Theatre. The Herman Shumlin-Margo Jones production is superbly acted and directed. It also provides Paul Muni with the greatest acting opportunity of a distinguished career as Clarence Darrow-like Drummond. It allows Ed Begley as the prototype of William Jennings Bryan the chance to give an even finer performance that he did in "All Summer Long" and "All My Sons." His facade is superb as the broken-down relic of the Great Commoner. Muriel Kirkland as his wife has never acted better in her life. Staats Cotsworth, as the local preacher who teaches fundamentalism along with Matthew Harrison Brady is extremely effective and so is Tony Randall as E.K. Hornbeck, the Baltimore newspaperman who is remarkably like the late H.L. Mencken, who pilloried the Bible Belt whenever he had the chance.
Bethel Leslie emerges as a fine young actress with Helen Hayes overtones, in the role of the preacher's daughter who is in love with the young teacher, Bertram Cates, who is arrested for teaching Darwinism in a Southern state which had a law forbidding it in 1922. Karl Light does all he can with an underwritten, undeveloped part. The role of the judge, prejudiced and intellectually limited, is admirably acted by Louis Hector.
It's been a long time since so large a cast has been present on the stage at one time. Frankly 20 actors could be eliminated from the cast without hurting the play or damaging the stage picture. Though Herman Shumlin has directed superbly he would have been wiser to use the technique of the "Witness for the Prosecution" jury box and the "Caine Mutiny Court Martial," tow other courtroom successes.
Peter Larkin has composed an imaginative though heavy permanent simultaneous setting of a Tennessee courtroom and the streets and houses of the town frowning down in Victorian shabby splendor. Abe Feder's lighting is supremely beautiful. Not since Robert Edmond Jones lighted "The Green Pastures" have I seen such glorious skies or such luminous light.
The audience was chattering audibly about the play, the Scopes trial and what they were or not doing in 1922 during the intermissions. Not even "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" nor "Bus Stop" has had such an impact on an audience if my ears were hearing correctly. "Inherit the Wind" is the most thrilling evening in the theatre in town tonight.