- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2000

For Michael Manson, author of a student guide for the Ford's Theatre production of "Inherit the Wind," the problem wasn't how to reconcile the factual history of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" with the dramatized version written in 1949 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.

Instead, he provides something of a civics lesson based on the conflicts raised in the play about creationism vs. evolution. His mission, he says, is to "take a broader perspective and open up bigger issues."

Mr. Manson is careful when writing such guides to offer more questions than definite answers. "I'm going to have liberal and conservative teachers, and I want to serve both," he says.

The four-page "Ford's Theatre Quick Sketch" — available to student groups free of charge through the theater's sales and marketing office — is titled "Religion in America: Why Are We Different?" The first section begins: "Religion and Government: Can They Exist Together?"

Mr. Manson leads his readers into a discussion of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, known as the establishment clause, which guarantees that the federal government never will establish a state religion.

An assistant professor of English at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass., Mr. Manson sees his greater challenge to be "to keep focused on Ford's mission — and I hope I don't get it wrong — to be a national theater, to present American authors and American themes."

"This nation has taken a very risky course of not establishing state religion without being anti-religious. But it doesn't prohibit religion," he says. "Countries have done the same thing since then, but we founded ourselves on that principle, which is why we have problems."

Nearly 4,000 middle school and high school students from 14 states are expected to see this classic American courtroom drama before it closes Nov. 5.

For the past 10 years during such runs, the theater has sponsored what it calls Opening Act Workshops. These include improvised acting by the students and discussions on themes raised on the stage. The next two workshops are scheduled, by reservation only, Thursday and Nov. 2.

"The groups are kept deliberately small — no more than 75 or 80 people at a time in a theater that seats 600," says Hannah Olanoff, director of sales and marketing for Ford. "The workshops take place in the morning before a selected matinee. This play has been especially popular, since the topic matter is just as current today.

"We see theater as a powerful tool of communication and a way of presenting history," Ms. Olanoff says. "'Kudzu' [in 1998] was a silly comedy, but it was also a snapshot of the South.

"What is important to Ford's," she emphasizes, "is that no one side is right. This is a public theater where we know there will be many opinions, but this play is one of the hardest to write about."

Ford's also prepares different materials annually for "A Christmas Carol," set for Nov. 25 through Dec. 31. The version Mr. Manson has written for students this year is what he calls "a textual version on how people change their hearts."

"When Scrooge changes his identity, you see it in the text. It's about how each ghost functions to change each part of Scrooge's character," he says.

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