Running through Jan. 27 at 8 p.m.
Matinees Jan. 14 & 21 at 3 p.m.
Adults $25, Seniors $22, Students $15
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St.
722-4487 or www.footlightplayers.net

Inherit the Wind packs a lot into its two-hour running time. It’s a riff on the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, a comment on the McCarthy witch hunts that took place when the play was written, an indictment of closed-minded rural Southern communities, and an example of great, taut playwriting.

Writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee worship at the altar of the wisecrack in their intelligently calculated script. Although Wind whips through some weighty issues, they still find room for lashings of humor. For most of the time, director Bill Stewart gets the tone right and keeps a wordy, 50-year-old legal drama fresh and entertaining.

It isn’t just Wind‘s creation-versus-evolution debate that’s relevant to today’s audiences. The mid-1920s marked a return to a simple adherence to faith after the grubby turmoil of a World War that many Americans were initially reluctant to enter. In this nostalgic climate, Scopes and his agnostic defense team faced a wall of with-us-or-against-us conservatism.

Lawrence and Lee neatly paraphrase the case, changing the names of major players but including all the highlights. In their hands the trial is presented as a battle of wits, pitting Bible thumpers against thinkers. The conflict is embodied by prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady and defense lawyer Henry Drummond, going head to head within the sweaty confines of a courtroom in Hillsboro, Tenn. The play stands or falls on the acting strengths and believability of the actors who play these two characters.

Fortunately, Ken Thomas and John Edwards both deliver honest, authentic performances. Local stage vet Edwards is particularly strong, and his timing is perfect; like Thomas, he brings surprising depths to Drummond.

There are plenty of other colorful characters for the Footlight Players to get their teeth into in this 27-strong cast. Chris Dowling plays presiding Judge Baker with the kind of effortless enthusiasm that never draws attention to itself but ideally suits the production. Sean X. Marino, who excelled as Felix in 2005’s The Odd Couple, depicts narcissistic reporter E.K. Hornbeck like a ’50s screwball caricature. Striking grandstanding poses on the stage, he seems ready to burst into song and dance at any moment — perhaps in homage to Gene Kelly, who played Hornbeck in the movie adaptation. In the romantic lead roles, Kate Graham (as Rachel Brown) scowls and borders on hysteria, while Josh Keller (Bert Cates) slows the first act down with some unnatural pauses.

Fred Hutter revels in his lesser role as Rachel’s father Rev. Brown, spiritual leader of the blinkered berg. Footlight newcomers Jim Bunch (as Mr. Meeker), Glenn Stafford (the blustering Mayor), and Greg Wright (Elijah) also show admirable commitment in smaller parts. Sadly, it’s not always so easy to hear them. The way the set’s designed, with exteriors suggested in a raised upstage area, keeps the characters well away from the audience for some important scenes. When they turn away or wave fans in front of their faces (to suggest the heat), they become even less audible.

Scenic designer Richard Heffner could create a great set with a few wood planks and some duct tape. But this time around the background is disappointingly sparse — a few buildings are suggested with outlines and a solitary doorway.

Director Stewart does what he can with these token trimmings, but doesn’t always block the actors so that they’re all visible — no mean feat when two dozen people share the stage. The enthusiasm of the cast helps to overcome this, though, and they successfully create the sense of a large, zealous crowd packed into a small courtroom.

Marla E. Miles varies her costumes just enough to suggest a contrast between country folk and sophisticated city slickers without being too obvious about it. John Thompson makes some unusual choices for the music, with subdued pre-show organ tunes hardly getting the audience in the mood for what is to come: a predominantly well-acted, dynamic production that takes a frothy, satirically-edged look at the importance of free thought, the inseparable elements of Church and State, and the ever-present dangers of dogma.