DISINHERIT THE WIND
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through April 9
When I was in college, I decided I should take some psychology courses to better understand myself and my fellow man. I signed up for Psych A, and discovered to my dismay that it was entirely concerned with statistics and testing methods, with nary a useful insight to be found. At that time, orthodox psychologists were hell-bent on having their work regarded as science as opposed to the Freudians’ romantic subjectivity. Insight was suspect because it was subjective, and couldn’t be tested, proven or quantified. I had come smack up against the eternal dichotomy between the subjective and the objective. It takes many forms, including the conflict between belief and fact, between science and religion, between personal experience and received wisdom, and even between political parties, all of whom claim to have a patent on the truth.
Here, playwright Matt Chait is dealing with biology rather than psychology, and he declares it his mission to cast a searchlight on the conflict between science and spirituality, but the principles remain the same. Chait posits a biologist, Bertram Cates (played by himself) who is fired from the University of California for questioning Darwin’s Origin of Species. He is challenging the University in court, and much of his play is set in the courtroom hearing on his case.
Chait unveils a barrage of biological facts (some of them fascinating), and the courtroom battles sometimes generate real dramatic heat. But he has stacked the deck: His chief opponent is “expert witness” Dr. Richard Dawkins (Circus-Szalewski), a doctrinaire Darwinist and a vain, supercilious intellectual fop. We know the minute he ascends the witness stand that he’s too much of a light-weight popinjay to win his case. The other opposition figures are the attorney for the defense, William Brady (Ken Stirble), who’s mainly concerned with appearances and how they’ll affect the university’s fund-raising abilities. And the university representative, Dr. Jared Brown (G. Smokey Campbell), is an orthodox biologist who is so affronted by having to listen to Dr. Cates’s frivolous nonsense that he storms out of the courtroom.
Cates is supported by his disciple Howard Blair (Stephen Tyler Howell), a young grad student who formerly studied under him. His testimony is derisively rejected once he admits to practicing meditation and other new age-y stuff. And Blair’s girl-friend is none-other than Melinda (Renahy Aulani), the daughter of the aforementioned Dr. Brown.
The debate is so long and so choked with facts that it recalls the endless and acrimonious debates of medieval theologists over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
In a way, the judge (Christina Hart) and Meeker, the court officer (Caroline Simone O’Brien), are the most intriguing characters in the play. Rather than stock figures, they are fully developed characters in their own right, with their own opinions and eccentricities. The judge, who has an active sense of humor, is determined that there’ll be no bickering in her court-room — but that rule is difficult to enforce. Both the judge and Meeker provide us with an exercise in active listening, as they try to follow the long and dense arguments. Meeker listens till the debate overwhelms her, then turns for refuge to a book of crossword puzzles.
Director Gary Lee Reed has assembled a splendid cast, and he and they labor diligently to persuade us that this is a real play about real people rather than a sermon-like thesis — and they succeed whenever the script lets them.
It has been said that in life, no one ever gets the chance to say it all: There are too many others eager to interrupt us and have their say. But this lesson is usually lost on writers of debate plays, who are determined to have the last word.
Marco De Leon provided the modest but effective set, and Sheiva Khalily designed the fascinating projections.
The Complex Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; (323) 960-4420 or www.plays411.com/disinherit. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.