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Somewhere in Washington, there is an actor who can play a person of faith without coming off like a raving loon.

That actor, sad to say, is nowhere in evidence at Ford’s Theatre, where director Timothy Childs has blown the chance to make Inherit the Wind, that fine old Darwin-vs.-dogma drama, seem immediate and relevant again. Big, juicy core performances and the script’s undiluted passion conspire to keep the whole package on the safe side of shameless, true, but the men of science are strong-jawed, clean-cut cartoon heroes and the conservatives beat their Bibles a little too vigorously. In a decade where demagogues still walk the land and the occasional square state still tries to prohibit the teaching of evolutionary theory, you can’t help but wonder whether this production had to feel so much like a smug snapshot of a dark national age.

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McCarthyism had brought the nation to a boil as Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were finishing their dramatic treatment of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” and in the early ’50s, there was plenty of concern about a script that offhandedly dismissed “the pleasant poetry of Genesis” and insisted that “the advance of knowledge is a greater miracle than all your sticks turned into snakes.” Then, as now, politicians tarred each other with innuendo (Charles Robb “votes like he’s from Vermont,” says Virginia Senate hopeful George Allen, smearing his opponent as a pinko gay-marriage proponent); then, as now, Washington insisted on looking to Hollywood for the causes of decay and decline, though the two-decade reign of the Hays Code was nearer its end than anyone knew. And in the early ’50s, as in Scopes’ day 30 years before, a curious unease percolated beneath the glossy veneer of a prosperous America.

Maybe it’s that last ingredient that’s missing now. Maybe, in the midst of this talked-to-death economic expansion, we’re simply too content to care much about challenges to intellectual freedom—never mind that they continue apace, in the form of Internet-censorship efforts, in campaigns against sex education, flag-burning amendment initiatives, and student-fee flaps on campuses across the country. Or maybe it’s the media’s changing priorities. What, besides O.J., could now generate the kind of national frenzy that H.L. Mencken and his ink-stained colleagues helped create with the Scopes affair? Certainly not a trial that turned on ideas.

Whatever the changes in context, the Ford’s production of Inherit the Wind seems to have studiously avoided any attempt at changing the play’s tone to suit. Yes, Lawrence and Lee focused on the endless tension between moral certainty and intellectual curiosity, but on the specific subject of evolution and the Bible, they were clearly amenable to the idea of peaceful coexistence. Childs picks up on that fact with a couple of throwaway visuals at the last curtain, but his sense of the central issues, on the other hand, seems to be more in line with that of Matthew Harrison Brady (Robert Prosky), the William Jennings Bryan clone who descends on the Tennessee backwater of Hillsboro to defend “the living truth of the Holy Scriptures” from the devil Darwin. In this production, as in Brady’s worldview, the gap between science and faith looks pretty much unbridgeable.

That’s mostly because Childs’ townspeople come across as a huddle of booger-picking hicks (the men, all of them plain and stupid) and a pious, pinafored choir loft full of harpies (the women, all of them piercingly shrill). Some of it’s in the script, sure, but more of it is in the performances of an indifferent ensemble, and Childs’ decision to add Nuremberg-rally overtones to a prayer-meeting scene hardly helps matters. In this day, in this city, it’s not much of a challenge to make conservative Christians look scary; what’s difficult, and what’s interesting, is making them look like real people with real concerns.

Broad approach aside, the production works in places: It’s a sturdy vehicle for veterans like Prosky and James Whitmore (as Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow stand-in), who deploy their convoluted rhetorical flourishes like so many one-liners. Opening night had a couple of dicey dialogue tangles, and Childs has clearly staged the courtroom scenes to keep an occasionally unsteady Whitmore within arm’s reach of a chair, but both stars seem to be settling comfortably into their showy roles. One Jay Edwards, the actor formerly known (to locals, anyway) as T.J. Edwards, makes a fine, scornful doppelgänger for Mencken, though his cynicism may be a touch too caustic in the final scene.

Leading the local pack, though, is the Rev. Jerry Falwell—er, Jeremiah Brown, a brimstone-eating, fire-breathing fundie wacko whose prayers are paroxysms of rage and whose hobby is hounding the kiddies with admonitions about Satan. Again, the trouble starts in the script, but Bill Cwikowski finishes the character off with a performance that starts big and gets bigger with every line.

Forget serious drama. What with the Rev. Jerry, his rabid church ladies, and the endless, tuneless hymn-singing—why, by the way, do “Old Time Religion” and “Amazing Grace” seem to be the only tunes in the stage director’s fundamentalist fakebook?—Ford’s big, broad Inherit the Wind looks more like the evolutionary descendant of the musical comedy. CP