Jay Allen Sanford 9:45 p.m., May 19
Director Adrian Noble set the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee courtroom drama in two places at once. Reconfiguring tables and chairs and Deidre Clancy's tan and brown costumes (matching the shades of unvarnished wood) suggest the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925, where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debated evolution versus creationism.
But the authors' program note says the trial takes place in a small town "not too long ago." And the attitudes behind the debate are as current as the clock on the wall.
Noble has assembled one of the largest casts at the Globe for a non-musical: often 25 actors on stage at once. And the production unfolds, physically, like a musical: orchestrated group movements and choral reactions, myriad fans swatting at 97 degree heat, and scene changes swift as disappearing acts. The staging's both period-precise and, under Alan Burnett's soft, creamy lighting, has an almost mythical feel.
To enhance contemporary relevance, the playwrights changed key names: Darrow becomes Henry Drummond; Bryan, Matthew Harrison Brady, John T. Scopes (the part-time science teacher who taught evolution to high school students); and H.L. Mencken, who wrote a syndicated commentary about the trial, is E.K. Hornbeck.
Of the first day, July 9, Mencken wrote: "when the infidel Scopes was first laid by the heels, there was no uncertainty in all this smiling valley. The town boomers leaped to the assault as one man."
In effect, the play puts absolute certainty on trial (and in Noble's configuration, the audience at the Lowell Davies Festival Stage is the jury). Lawrence said they "used the teaching of evolution as a ...metaphor for any kind of mind control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."
Even in the edited version at the Globe, the authors hammer the point home with didactic overkill.
The trial admits only one side. The judge refuses testimony from experts on evolution. Debate, even discussion of differences, be damned. The attitude recalls the witch-hunts of Salem and Senator McCarthy, along with numerous recent instances.
As written, Brady's an over-inflated balloon wafting toward a rusty nail. Adrian Sparks accepts the assignment and ladles on the rhetorical gusto. His best moment comes when the script trips up the stereotype: it's Brady, not Drummond, who cautions the townspeople against zealousness.
Robert Foxworth's Drummond is all aces. In this setting, he's an enemy of the people, but with wily, often understated deliveries, he becomes a Sherlock Holmes of the law.
Most of the characters are one-note. But the performers - especially Joseph Marcell as a devilish Hornbeck, Vivia Font as long-suffering Rachel, and Charles Janasz as brimstone-spewing Reverend Brown - flesh them out. And Noble's stage abounds with life.
Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, through September 29 [runs in repertory with Richard III and As You Like It].