"Inherit the Wind" has pitted great actors against each other in a trial over evolution and freedom of thought. The most famous pairing occurred between Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in the film.
Next weekend, two area teen-agers, Willie Averill and Matt Karpowitz, will step into those considerable shoes, when the Summer Youth Theatre produces the play at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Written in 1959 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the play gives a fictionalized account of the Scopes "monkey" trial held in 1925 in Tennessee. A high school teacher was accused of teaching evolution in his science class.
The well-covered trial took on a circus atmosphere when Clarence Darrow, the famed leftist attorney, came to defend Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, the populist politician and orator, took over the prosecution.
ERSTWHILE ALLIES, Darrow and Bryan engaged in a battle of wits that was well-documented in newspapers. Bryan defended the Biblical stories of creation and Darrow challenged them, saying teachers should be free to teach evolution. Bryan died of a stroke a few days after the trial.
The play gives the Scopes trial a dramatic structure and ultimately sides with the Darrow stand-in. But Averill found a definite mix of opinions among his cast when he started rehearsals.
"It's a play about freedom of thought," he said. "That was the approach I took. When we first started I had the kids line up across the room. One end of the room stood for strict creationism, and the other end stood for strict evolution, and I had them stand where they thought they were on the issue. We got just about a complete spectrum.''
KARPOWITZ AND Averill, who are entering their senior year at Lawrence High School, said they performed some heavy research into the real-life counterparts of their characters. Averill plays Darrow, and Karpowitz plays Bryan.
"He (Darrow) actually led an interesting life," Averill said. "He was one of the . . . few lawyers to believe that the law should protect people.''
"I didn't know a lot about Bryan before I started," Karpowitz said. "I read about his political disappointments and about his religious fervor. He had alreadly lost politically, and his religious fervor was all he had left. He saw this trial as a chance to recover some of his reputation.''
In his heyday, Bryan was known as the Boy Orator, and his speeches were well-known throughout the country. Karpowitz said it's a challenge to his voice to present the speeches of such a figure.
"I'VE PLAYED a lot of people with an overbearing attitude," Karpowitz said. "I'm trying to get people to follow me with the words. Sometimes those words are flowery but the intention is to get people to follow him.''
Averill said he intends to dress in Darrow's characteristic manner suspenders and wire-rimmed glasses. He also must try to emulate, as much as possible, the physical demeanor of a 65-year-old man.
"My approach has been to lower my voice a bit and move at a slower speed," Averill said.
The production includes more than 50 performers plus stage crews drawn from area teen-agers, Averill said. Later this summer, the Youth Theatre will present "Godspell.''
"Inherit the Wind" plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Lawrence Arts Center, Ninth and Vermont. Tickets are available at the center.