Just the title of Matt Chait’s play, Disinherit the Wind, is provocative, intentionally calling to mind the controversial play Inherit the Wind, which recreated the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In that play, a teacher named Bertram Cates is put on trial for teaching Darwinian evolution, which flies in the face of biblical scripture. A countering argument to the Theory of Evolution, which posits that a common ancestor of all life on earth emerged between 3.5 and 3.8 billions years ago, is the religious notion that God created the world in seven days. In 1658, Bishop Ussher, using the ages of the prophets and other biblical events, calculated that the first day of that famous event occurred on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.
In the years since, Darwinian evolution itself has almost gained a religious status of its own, with Creationism as an alternate argument. Mr. Chait’s play honors the earlier play by using some of the same character names. The playwright himself takes on the role of Professor Bertram Cates, a brilliant microbiologist sacked from the University of California for daring to question the primacy of Darwinian evolution. Isaac Newton’s theories have flaws that led later physicists like Einstein and others to seek out new answers. Darwin’s theory, now overwhelmingly accepted, was formulated with absolutely no knowledge of the discoveries afforded by microbiology such as DNA and RNA that are the very building blocks of all life on Earth. If I understand it correctly, it is Chait’s position that a “spiritual” element is at play in the beginnings of life on Earth and that consciousness and thought play a role in the evolutionary process. To be clear, this is not religion and he defines no god or creator, for the mystery of the beginning of life remains just that, and may be forever unknowable. The exposition of these notions makes for a fascinating evening or afternoon at the theatre and it is Mr. Chait’s passion that fuels the experience.
In Disinherit the Wind, Dr. Cates goes to trial seeking reinstatement and restitution. Testifying for the plaintiff, graduate student Howard Blair (Stephen Tyler Howell in a compelling performance) tells how Cates’ spiritual approach to microbiology inspires him. The UC lawyer for the defense, William Brady (acerbic Ken Stirbl) assumes a snide attitude of superiority while the head of the Department of Microbiology, Dr. Jared Brown (G. Smokey Campbell), glowers at his side. This team brings in their own heavy hitter, Dr. Richard Hawkins (Circus-Szalewski), a name intended to call to mind atheist biologist Richard Dawkins. This character, as written and keenly played by Mr. Circus-Szalewski, is a condescending, pompous ass. The even-tempered judge (Christina Hart) acts as a referee demanding decorum in the courtroom when the arguments get heated, which they frequently do. The bailiff, Officer Meeker (Caroline Simone O’Brien), clearly favors Cates. Fleshing out the play is a romantic subplot with young idealist Howard Blair head over heals in love with Melinda Brown (charming Renahy Aulani), Dean Brown’s daughter. Making brief appearances are Lon S. Lewi as student protester Mart Dunlop, and Tony Cicchetti as reporter Alan Hornbeck, another name borrowed from Inherit the Wind.
Disinherit the Wind clocks in at close to three hours with one intermission. It has had one previous production. It is a very personal creation by Mr. Chait. If it is to have a life beyond this production, which I hope it will, some judicious trimming may be necessary. Some of the arguments seem repetitious and unnecessarily academic. The theatre is not a classroom and the audience should be trusted to get it.
The production, directed by Gary Lee Reed, is neatly staged in the fifty-five-seat Ruby Theatre at the Complex with set by Marco De Leon, lighting by Phillip W. Powers, sound by Ross Chait, and projections by Sheiva Khalily.
Disinherit the Wind continues through April 9 at The Complex (Ruby Theatre), 6476 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.