Drama at the courthouse | New

A turbulent combination of history, heat and rhetoric created a circus-like atmosphere on the second floor of the Crawford County Courthouse this week, bringing to life a courtroom that had been dormant for nearly five years.

Conditions come to a head this weekend as Meadville Community Theater presents an immersive “pop-up” staging of “Inherit the Wind,” the classic 1955 play based on the Scopes Monkey Trial. Today’s and Sunday’s performances will take place in Courthouse 1, just as they did in 1971 when MCT made “Inherit the Wind” one of its first productions.

The courtroom setting puts cast and audience members in the same sort of stifling circumstances experienced during the 1925 “trial of the century” in Dayton, Tennessee, when teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for violating a state law prohibiting teaching. development in public schools. In a case that was as much a public relations stunt as a legal exercise, William Jennings Bryan and proponents of creationism were pitted against Clarence Darrow and proponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Sunday’s performance takes place exactly 97 years after the Scopes trial began, but director Katie Wickert says the conflict at the heart of the play is more relevant than ever.

“We continue to see these kinds of social issues happen, especially with our school system,” Wickert said, citing heated disputes over mandatory masking during the pandemic as a recent example. “It’s the same – you still have divisions in your schools.”

Adding to the authenticity of the production is a cast that includes several actors who share occupations with the characters they play. The most prominent examples are John Spataro, presiding judge of the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas, who plays the presiding judge in the fictional version of the Scopes trial, and Tim Soloman, pastor of the Emmanuel de Meadville Community Church, which portrays the city’s radically fundamentalist minister.

For Spataro, the play is a return to the stage for the first time since appearing in a few MCT productions in the 1980s and a return to the courthouse where he heard cases for years before county court. is moved next to the judicial center. in 2017.

As cast members gathered for their dress rehearsal Thursday, Spataro noted that the play was likely the last time a judge would sit on the bench. The currently vacant paneled courtroom is to be renovated as part of an effort to consolidate county offices inside the courthouse.

“It definitely brings back memories,” Spataro said, though he noted that the memories mostly resulted from the location. The play’s content, he continued, definitely employs “a certain poetic license” when it comes to its depiction of the legal system in general and its depiction of the judge in particular.

Gazing at the “Read your Bible” banner strung across an entrance, the group of townspeople practicing their courtroom interruptions and the circus spirit that pervades the room, Spataro said he handles his courtroom differently .

“There would be none of that,” he said. “There’s no way I’m letting this kind of commotion happen in my courtroom.”

At the same time, however, the distractions added to his sympathy for his character.

“He tries to keep everything under control,” Spataro said, “but at the same time it’s a small town in the 1920s – he tries to balance the fact that he’s in this community where everyone knows everyone. If you’re too harsh, it could be frowned upon.

But while the judge in the room doesn’t seem to be successful in respecting courtroom decorum, he does follow the law, according to Spataro, especially when deciding what evidence is relevant and what isn’t.

“It’s a pretty simple legal question. The law is you’re not allowed to teach Darwinism in public schools,” he said in an authoritative voice that made it hard to tell if he was in character or just him. -same. “It is not appropriate to debate whether this is a good law in this context. … It’s irrelevant. The law is the law, and that’s how it works.

Like Spataro, Solomon had conflicting emotions regarding his fictional counterpart. On the one hand, Solomon said he was diametrically opposed to the character. On the other hand, the Reverend Jeremiah Brown of the play really knows how to get his followers going.

“I love his passion in his preaching and I would love to have a congregation that would respond to me in sermons,” Solomon said moments after rehearsing a scene in which his character leads a gathering of townspeople and prays for God’s revenge. of the Darwins. school teacher and “hit that sinner!”

“This story of hellfire and brimstone,” Solomon said, completely opposes the grace that is central to his understanding of Christianity. “I feel like I can’t smile and be that character.”

Despite the challenge, Solomon expressed his optimism about the community outside of the play. While the play offers a mirror to a polarizing moment in American history, it creates a simplified version of reality in the process, according to Solomon.

Nearly a century after the Scopes trial, at a time when polarized debates often seem to be the very air that American society breathes, it was a view that any reasonable court would find relevant.

“I feel like the play creates two artificial options – this religion of hell and damnation or this pseudo-scientific evolution and neither of the two will come together,” Solomon said. “I think you can bring faith and science together. Those at either extreme lack a sense of awe and appreciation for the universe.