In "Inherit the Wind," based on the historic Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, a young man is imprisoned for teaching the theory of evolution in school.
On the surface, the play is an argument between religion and science or creationism vs. evolution, but a more fundamental debate is going on underneath, says director Nathan Bush.
"For me, and this is actually in the play, free thought is on trial as well," Bush said.
The classic courtroom drama, written in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, opens Thursday night in Oregon State University's Withycombe Hall main stage theatre. It is the opening production of OSU Theatre's 2017-2018 season "In the Public Eye."
Bush, an OSU acting instructor, is making his directorial debut with the production.
He said the Scopes Monkey Trial in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was the first trial in America history to be broadcast live.
"This was viewed as the trial of the century when it happened, and via radio the American public was able to tune in," Bush said.
"Inherit the Wind" is a theatrical retelling of the case against teacher John T. Scopes. The characters in it are representations of the real people involved.
Thomas McKean plays Bertram Cates, the character based on Scopes. Cates goes to jail for teaching evolution in a state-funded high school. Such teachings were against the law, and Cates draws ire from the deeply religious community.
"You can't say that there is a religious community in this town, because this whole town is a religious community," Bush said.
"Just because a man decides to teach the theory of evolution, because he is scientifically literate doesn't make him any less of a child of God. This is what the play deals with," he said.
The impending trial draws two very well-known attorneys into town.
Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Mike Stephens, is a inspired by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate who carried the torch in the fight against evolution. The Christian fundamentalist heads the prosecution.
Leading the defense team is Henry Drummond, played by Joe Cullen. Drummond is inspired by Clarence Darrow.
Bush said Darrow was a very famous agnostic lawyer at the time, and likened him to the late Johnnie Cochran, who led the team that defended O.J. Simpson at his trial for murder.
"You had these giants converging in this very small town in the South taking on this monumental, ideological case. And you have this guy Scopes and this entire town caught in the middle of it," Bush said.
The production has a large cast the combines OSU students and community members.
"I've got a tremendous cast of 32 individuals who have been working extremely hard," Bush said.
In addition to Cates and the two opposing attorneys, the drama features three other principal characters.
Rachel Brown (Lindsey Esch) is romantically linked to Cates, but she's emotionally conflicted in the play, because she is also the preacher's daughter, Bush said.
"She loves Bertram Cates, but she's torn between the expectations of her father and the community," he said.
Her father is Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Robert Best), who is the town's religious authority.
"My reading of it, he walks a very thin line between just religious dedication and fanatical," Bush said. "His sermons are so fiery that they could almost instigate a riot or a mob mentality."
The final principal character is a reporter from Baltimore named E.K. Hornbeck (Cole Haenggi). Bush describes him as a "button pusher," who holds an elitist view and mocks everyone in the southern Christian town throughout the play.
"This town kind of explodes with the fever that this trial is stirring up," Bush said. "The townsfolk are their own character, and in a way they go through the biggest journey of any of the other characters."
Bush said even though "Inherit the Wind" was written in 1955, it's particularly timely today.
"We haven't been this blatantly divided in American history for quite some time," he said. "Everybody has taken a side, not just politically, but scientifically and religiously."
The director hopes the audience can find commonality, humanity and may even see themselves in some of the characters.
"We don't leave the town the same way we found it, and hopefully we won't leave the audience the same way we found them," he said.