In the middle of act one of Disinherit the Wind, now playing at The Complex in Hollywood, something rather unusual is asked of the audience. The main character, Bertram Cates (portrayed by the playwright, Matt Chait) leads everyone in the room, actors and patrons alike, in a brief meditation.
Out of context, this sounds ridiculously strange, but it speaks to the spirit of the piece, a courtroom drama about a monumental case centered around how evolution is taught in science programs. Disinherit the Wind has a long history—it borrows its title and character names from the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, which was based on the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” a case about teaching evolution in state-funded schools that caused a media frenzy at the time.
Directed here by Gary Lee Reed, the story follows Cates, a popular neurobiology professor at the University of California who is suspended and shunned in the science community for contradicting the Darwinian theory of evolution in his classes. In court seeking to regain his job, as well as earn damages for lost employment, Cates represents himself and is accompanied by his star pupil turned star witness, a graduate student named Howard (Stephen Tyler Howell). Naturally, Howard’s girlfriend, Mel (Renahy Aulani), is also the daughter of stubborn, traditional department chair Dr. Brown (G. Smokey Campbell), who is speaking for the university in court. The first scene of the play takes place in a lecture of Cates’s before jumping five years in time to the first day of the trial.
I should make clear that I am no biologist. While I have a working familiarity with many of the scientific concepts discussed in Disinherit the Wind, I am certainly not an expert. That being said, I was surprised early on by just how reasonable Cates’s claims were. While many of his critics toss around the word “creationist,” that is not what Cates is. He believes in evolution and teaches it, he just focuses on a more wholistic—some may argue “spiritual”—approach than Darwin, long considered the scientific standard. He believes you cannot think of the human body without including consciousness, hence his classroom experiments with meditation. Nothing he says is earth-shattering, or something the average person on the street would object to, but it is different from the views of Dr. Brown and the biology department, and therefore a witch hunt ensues.
Considering that I bought into Cates’s argument within the first ten minutes of the play, its nearly three hour running time ended up feeling extremely excessive. Nothing Cates does is, in my opinion, controversial enough to justify that much discussion. The most scandalous revelation in the case is that Cates wrote a blog under a pseudonym that discussed “new age” concepts, and that Howard, an acclaimed doctoral student in the field, felt inspired to seek out further study in meditation as a result of Cates’s class. The case is not balanced enough for the stakes to feel real, and it is not surprising when the eventual conclusion comes far too easily as the result of someone simply changing their mind.
Act one features some interesting transitions between the interpersonal relationships and the case at hand, breaking up the action into palatable chunks. While I was unimpressed by many of the performances, with the exception of Chait, the situation at least felt compelling. Act two, however, is comprised almost entirely of one very lengthy scene in which the university calls their star witness, famous scientist Robert Hawkins (Circus-Szalewski). The result is a lot of scientific showboating in what seems to be the most unprofessional and unorganized court room of all time. The performances are better than in the first half, but still, the act drags on. Granted, it is difficult to convey the scope of a highly publicized, high-stakes trial with limited cast members and resources, but the gravity fails to land. The crux of the debate could easily be explained in under five minutes, so why are we listening to it for almost three hours? It does not help that the subject matter and the issues at hand feel dated, which I suppose is to be expected for a play originally inspired by a case from nearly 100 years ago. While the ideas at the center of Disinherit the Wind are intriguing, the way they are presented is simply not dynamic enough to remain compelling throughout.
Disinherit the Wind runs at the Ruby Theatre at the Complex (6476 Santa Monica Blvd) through April 9th. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.plays411.com/disinherit.