The play, a fictionalized retelling by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee of the "Scopes monkey trial," is an old-fashioned, American courtroom drama. Yet the subject matter still sounds contemporary, and director Doug Hughes has given the work a streamlined, fast-paced production that manages to get the most out of this cannily constructed entertainment now on view at the Lyceum Theatre.
Set in a small Southern town in 1925, "Inherit the Wind" follows the trial of a young schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution. Yet the play, first seen in New York in 1955, doesn't focus on the teacher. It finds its fireworks in the clash between the defense lawyer and the prosecuting attorney.
Plummer portrays the man's lawyer, a role modeled after the legendary Clarence Darrow. Dennehy is his opponent, a character loosely based on perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
There is something eminently satisfying about watching two pros at work. The craggy Plummer, slicked-down hair falling to one side of his forehead, moves slowly, each movement guaranteed to get the audience's attention.
But it's more than movement that gets theatergoers to notice him. There's Plummer's voice, crisp and forceful, as his character, Henry Drummond, negotiates his way through a proceeding that's stacked against his client, played with appropriate earnestness by Benjamin Walker.
The town of Hillsboro, described by a reporter covering the trial as "the buckle in the Bible Belt," is firmly in the anti-evolution camp. Before the play begins, a quartet of on-stage performers sing hymns. Audience members also sit on stage, forming a kind of a modern-day jury.
Lawrence and Lee, best known for their play "Auntie Mame" and the book for its musical adaptation ("Mame"), are not into agitprop, although "Inherit the Wind" certainly finds its hero in Plummer's character. But the lawyer is after more than whether evolution is right or wrong.
"I hold that the right to think is very much on trial," says Drummond, describing the defendant as a thinking man "threatened with fine and imprisonment because he chooses to speak what he thinks."
The barrel-chested Dennehy is physically right for the self-assured prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady. The man booms with confidence, particularly where the Bible is concerned. Dennehy also has the craft to make sure the bluster doesn't turn into caricature.
Plummer and Dennehy rightly dominate the production, but other actors manage to make an impression, too. A Baltimore newspaper reporter (Denis O'Hare) covering the trial is awash in cynicism. "I am admired for my detestability," he grins, and O'Hare goes out of his way to make sure the journalist, a thinly disguised version of the real-life H.L. Mencken, is as obnoxious as possible.
Byron Jennings as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Maggie Lacey as his agitated daughter (in love, of course, with the accused teacher) and Beth Fowler as Brady's sweetly supportive wife offer finely etched portraits.
"Inherit the Wind" was a big hit when it first opened on Broadway in a production featuring Paul Muni and Ed Begley, and there was a movie version in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.
In its craftsmanship, the play is much like another venerable drama from the 1950s, "Twelve Angry Men," which was a surprise hit on Broadway in 2004. There is a suspense, a sense of anticipation about the outcome of "Inherit the Wind" that is innately theatrical.
Mix that with some of Drummond's more homey, common-sense observations such as "The man who has everything figured out is probably a fool," which are peppered throughout the evening and you have a play that, more than 50 years after is premiere, is still an unabashed crowd-pleaser.