By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Ninety years ago this month, the country was just entering the Jazz Age. Prohibition was in full swing -- as was Babe Ruth, on the field for the New York Yankees. Warren G. Harding was president of the United States. The issues that eventually came to a head with the so-called Scopes “Monkey” Trial were entering the public consciousness.
And the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild -- then called The Players of Niagara -- was formed in Niagara County.
Today, the guild, now headquartered at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse in the Town of Tonawanda, is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a show that harkens back to the days of its origin, “Inherit the Wind.” The story is loosely based on the Scopes Trial of 1925, wherein a teacher was tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in defiance of Tennessee state law.
Director Fran Newton said that the play was requested by both the guild’s actors and its audience, but it was ultimately chosen for historical reasons.
“The thing that really sent it over the top for us is that the show is falling on our 90th anniversary,” he said. “The actual Scopes trial took place two years after we began as an organization. We thought it would be nice to have something from the same era on the stage at the same time we were talking about our history.”
For all its fictionalized connection to the trial, Newton said, the play isn’t as much about the battle over evolution as it is over people’s right to think as they please. (It was written in the 1950s, as a way to showcase issues related to the time’s McCarthy trials.)
“It’s so well-written, very fast-paced, but not in the ‘I-know who the killer is’ or ‘I-saw-so-and-so-in-the-study’ way,” Newton said. “This isn’t a murder drama. This is a courtroom drama where you’re trying the national conscience.
“It gives great arguments on both sides. That makes for a really interesting play.”
On the side of the issue stands prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Paul Bene of Niagara Falls. He’s faced by defense attorney Henry Drummond, who is played by Stephen Jakiel of Buffalo.
“The fun part is that they are great friends,” Newton said. “It’s one of the things that makes it fun, and they’re just terrific. I couldn’t imagine somebody else in those roles.
“These are two guys whose voices boom. They are quiet, they don’t have to yell. They just have very resonant voices. In rehearsal, it’s so much fun. Once one starts going, they just light each other up. Pretty soon, you have the two of them going at each other, it’s very tense, they’re pounding tables. And then someone says a line wrong or something and they just start laughing.”
Bene, who has been involved with the guild for almost 30 years, said that he’s wanted to play Brady for years. The show itself has many personal attachments for him -- it was the first play he ever performed in while a student at Kenmore West High School, and the first play he directed for the then-Niagara Falls Little Theatre.
“I really liked the play and I really liked what the play stood for, what it meant,” he said. “It seemed the character could easily become a buffoon, a cartoon character. Pretty much everyone I saw play the role seemed to go that route. It seemed to me that was doing the play and the character a disservice. I wanted to try to do it someday and make the character and the man sympathetic.
“He’s not an evil man, he’s not a buffoon. He’s just a man whose time has passed.”
Bene and Jakiel have traded lines on stage before ... as Col. Pickering and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and as Pellinore and King Arthur in “Camelot.” Bene said it’s always interesting to bring that history into a show.
“I think it gives us kind of a comfort level and a theatrical shorthand,” he said. “You’re kind of aware of what the other guy is doing a little bit. If you get off track a little, you know the other guy can bring you back. You feel the emotion. You kind of ride the wave together, so to speak. It makes it smoother, more fluid, more electrical.
“It’s a sword fight without swords. If the pace is right and the mood is right and the tension is right, it will electrify an audience.”
Jakiel, chairman of the English department at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Kenmore, called the play “beautifully written.”
“It is so nice to be playing a major role with someone else in a major role whom I respect because of his ability as an actor,” he said of Bene. “You also are very frank with each other. One will say to the other, ‘You know, it would make sense you do that.’ It’s just a very wonderful thing. Because I respect his opinion, I value his opinion. It makes it so much more meaningful.
“That’s why you do community theater. It’s not for the money.”
For all the play’s 1920s setting and 1950s history, Newton, Bene and Jakiel all emphasized its resonance in the world of the 2010s.
“Free speech is what this is about. People think it’s that since it’s set in the context of the Scopes trial, it’s about evolution,” Jakiel said. “But today, is free speech still an issue in this country? Absolutely! Are some people still trying to shove their ideas down other people’s throats? Whether for the left or the right, people see that.”
For his part, Bene said he enjoys the challenge of playing a part that’s completely opposite his own point of view.
“People think this play is an anti-fundamentalist-religious play,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It was first produced in the 1950s. It was a metaphor for the HUAC hearings, where people were ostracized, went to jail, were fined for refusing to name communist friends.
“It’s about people being able to express what they think, say it out loud, without being ostracized from society for what they think.”
Newton agreed with both.
“You look at the way the pendulum has completely swung the other way,” he said. “Now religion isn’t allowed in public schools. That is such an interesting contrast. Now the people who are fighting are trying to keep religion in schools. It’s really almost the same fight and you could use almost the same play, reverse the stands and it would play as something that would resonate today.
“It’s just life. The pendulum swings to the end either way before it starts to swing back.”
The show runs through Feb. 17. Michael Breen of Buffalo also stars as E.K. Hornbeck. Andrew Polino of East Amherst plays Cates and Maria Nicole of Niagara Falls takes the role of Rachel.
For more information or tickets, visit www.niagaratheatre.com or call 284-6358.IF YOU GO • WHAT: "Inherit the Wind," presented by the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Feb. 15 and 16; 3 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 17 • WHERE: Ellicott Creek Road Playhouse, St. Edmund Campus, 530 Ellicott Creek Road, Town of Tonawanda • TICKETS: Cost is $10 presale. At-the-door cost is $14 general admission, $13 for seniors and students with ID and $10 for children 16 and younger. Call 284-6358 or visit www.niagaratheatre.com.