Ordinarily, City Lights Theatre Artistic Director Jim Holt tries his best to stay out of politics.
But his decision to stage the classic play Inherit the Wind this weekend at the Lucas Theatre was directly inspired by a local political debate.
"I was reading all those letters to the editor in the Savannah Morning News about creationism and evolution," Holt says, referring to a recent dust-up on the local daily's letters page. "I thought, sooner or later this will stop. But it kept coming. So I thought, well, this is really interesting, from all kinds of points of view."
Inherit The Wind is a drama loosely based on the famous Scopes ìMonkey TrialÎ of 1925. Set in the buckle of the Bible Belt in the East Tennessee hills, the play deals with a court case against a schoolteacher, Bertram Cates, who knowingly disobeys a local law against teaching -- or even mentioning --Darwinism in Tennessee schools.
Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the play inspired a 1960 Spencer Tracy movie of the same name. The bulk of the play is a courtroom set piece, where Cates' fate is decided in a gripping battle of wits between his attorney, Henry Drummond (the Spencer Tracy character in the movie, based on the real-life Clarence Darrow and played here by Holt), and the prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (a character based on the legendary populist preacher Williams Jennings Bryan, and played here by Les Taylor).
Holt says current court cases involving the teaching of "creation theory" in public schools make Inherit the Wind an important work to this day.
"What's going on now really seems to be a reversal of what was going on in 1925," he says. "But I can definitely understand why there's so much interest, from anybody's point of view. For example, no one has really answered the question, 'What started the Big Bang?' What came before whatever it is that we have now?"
There's a personal interest for Holt as well.
"The movie had an incredible influence on me growing up, as the son of a fundamentalist preacher. My father believed everything exactly as Matthew Harrison Brady does in the play," he says.
"No movie up to that time had dealt with religion quite so frankly. After I saw it, I thought, 'Well, obviously Dad and I will be able to have a rational discussion about all this now.' I was wrong," Holt laughs.
While Inherit the Wind does not in any way disparage religion -- a late plot twist reinforces the value of spiritual belief -- it does take a clearly humanist point of view.
"The play is one-sided in a way. It's definitely making a point," Holt says.
"The authors of the play put a disclaimer in, to the effect that the play is meant to be something that could take place at anytime," he says. "It was written in a time when there was a lot of reaction to the McCarthy hearings, parallel to what the play The Crucible was trying to do at the same time."
While Inherit the Wind may strive to make a point, a panel discussion Saturday afternoon -- between the matinee and evening shows -- will attempt to bring some balance to the issue.
Three local spokesmen supporting the teaching of evolution will be on the panel -- professors Luther Simmons, Jack Simmons and Gene Mesco -- along with two supporters of creation theory, B.J. Edenfield and Effingham Christian Schoolís Josh Grisby.
Mesco says putting religious teaching on a par with scientific teaching is especially dangerous in a time of increasing environmental pressures.
"Religion has a tendency to suppress worry about things that might require some serious thought," he says. "This has a real impact in terms of quality of life issues. Since our consciousness enables us to have an impact on the world around us, we should embrace that, instead of ignore it, as the creationists would seem to have us do. It would be morally wrong to deny this knowledge."
Grisby counters that ideally neither evolution nor creationism should be taught in public schools, since "neither is scientific -- they're both religious philosophies," he says.
Grisby maintains that evolution does not satisfy the demands of science because its central hypothesis is "neither observable nor repeatable."
City Lights Theatre presents Inherit the Wind at the Lucas Theatre March 10, 11, 12 at 8 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee March 12. A free panel discussion debating evolution and creationism will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday March 12. Call 234-9860 for ticket prices and reservations.