A cartoon in last Sunday’s L.A. Times sums it up pretty neatly. In Scott Stantis’ “Prickly City,” a little girl and her dog sit precariously atop a rock tower with no idea how they got there. “I keep pondering the age-old question,” she says. “Why are we here?” The mutt answers, “Why not?” “Question solved,” she says.
Some existential questions simply cannot be addressed by a kneejerk appeal to the verities of science and rationality. For now, we just do not have all the answers. Many turn to religion and credit God with providing the spark to creation, while humanists tend to ask “Why not?” without concluding, “Question solved.” It’s okay not to have certainty and to continue asking.
These are the issues author Matt Chait seeks to confront in his play Disinherit the Wind, in which he stars as Bertram Cates, a tenured University of California professor of neurobiology who has been fired for supposedly introducing unscientific religious ideas into his teaching. What Cates has been doing over the course of his almost 30-year career is to point out the lacunae in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution that later science has yet to fill in.
Chait derives his title from Jerome Lawrence’s 1955 well-known play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized version of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” challenging the right of Tennessee schools to teach evolution. That trial pitted maverick rationalist lawyer Clarence Darrow against the Biblical creationist and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Lawrence wrote his play 30 years after the trial to criticize the then-current mood of McCarthyism and defend intellectual freedom. “It’s not about science versus religion,” he said. “It’s about the right to think.”
Disinherit the Wind does not oppose Darwinism as such, but does observe that the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life leaves room for further research and refinement. Orthodoxy in anything is stagnation.
“If Sir Isaac Newton were deified in the same way that Darwin is, then anyone who contradicted him would be held in contempt,” says Cates in the play. “Einstein would have lived out his days as an anonymous worker in a patent office in Switzerland, and Heisenberg would have been run out of Copenhagen on a rail for his heresy. Yet when it came to Newton, the tiniest discrepancies between Newtonian predictions and actual findings caused the scientific community not to close ranks, but to search diligently for new answers that would explain those discrepancies; hence relativity and quantum theory, transistors, GPS systems, lasers, Blu-Ray players, atomic power plants and atomic clocks.”
Cates obviously knows all about cells, DNA, proteins, neurons, sequencing and genetic codes, and we hear quite enough to ascertain his expertise. But if life is an extremely efficient mechanism for self-preservation and reproduction, each microscopic part playing by rote its assigned role, then where does consciousness come from, he asks. Thinking? Desire? Will? Love? Are we only an elegant composite of atomized cells, no more than the sum of our physical parts? Can we not acknowledge we are filled with awe and wonderment at this remarkable, perhaps miraculous complexity?
Beyond the point of certainty in our knowledge are we not entering the poetic realm—perhaps what The Bard referred to as “the stuff that dreams are made on?”
The neurobiologist seeks outside of established science, leading him into meditation and Eastern philosophy. Early in his career, before he earned tenure, he blogged his intellectual wanderings under the name “Miss Tickle,” alerting the university to the presence of such potential “mystical” heresy among its ranks. After becoming tenured Cates started using his real name, which sent his department chair to the university lawyers: The integrity of science must be defended!
In two hefty acts in a three-hour production, this “play of ideas” is basically a courtroom drama whose high point comes in Act 2 with a face-off between the self-representing Cates and a world-renowned British expert Dr. Richard Hawkins (Circus-Szalewski). In all his arrogant self-assurance, Hawkins believes his testimony will summarily demolish Cates’ arguments. Predictably, of course—since Cates is presented as such a warm and cuddly New Age hero—the supercilious Hawkins is left a pitiable pile of poorly drawn conclusions, conflicting evidence, unanswerable questions and jangled nerves. His blustery, flustered eminence (a bit Gilbert and Sullivany) is played with delightful aplomb.
As author, Chait imbues his character Cates with some aspects that detract from our sympathy. For example, in the courtroom he recites the Jewish affirmation of belief, “The Lord is one,” as indication that the ancient Jewish people recognized the oneness of all creation. It seemed tendentious and irrelevant to his legal or scientific case. When he introduced the courtroom to the practice of meditation, however, I found that more successful, although irregular in a formal hearing: He was merely asking those present to calm everything down, all the noise and activity, and focus on pure mental awareness. Where does that comes from? Good question for Darwinians!
Other characters are comparatively minor. There’s Cates’ loyal student Howard Blair (Stephen Tyler Howell), who puts his own promising career on the line by agreeing to testify for Cates. He is engaged to Melinda Brown (Renahy Aulani), the bland daughter of the head of the department, Dr. Jared Brown (G. Smokey Campbell). The university lawyer is William Brady (Ken Stirbl), and the Judge is Christina Hart. Other small roles are played by Lon S. Lewi, Tony Cicchetti, and Caroline Simone O’Brien.
The director is Gary Lee Reed, who may not have had the authority to tighten up the play, though that would have helped. It was not his job to supervise a rewrite, but in his direction of Dr. Brown, whose insistence it was to fire Cates, he does not adequately demonstrate the department chair’s turnaround. Although not the protagonist, nor the protagonist’s foil, Brown is the fulcrum of the play and he must be well drawn if we in the audience are to be persuaded. Neither the script nor the director nor the actor accomplishes this.
The premise of this work is fascinating, and for many that may be enough. But as theatre it has its longueurs and an inevitability that overstay its welcome.
Disinherit the Wind plays at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038 through April 9, Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 3 pm. For tickets and further information, call (323) 960-4420 or visit www.plays411.com/disinherit. The play’s Facebook page is here.
Eric A. Gordon
Photo: from left, Stephen Tyler Howell, Matt Chait, Circus-Szalewski and Christina Hart / Ed Krieger
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