Lawyer brings life to theater character

By Lisa Roose-Church

Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell)

HOWELL (AP) -- As a defense attorney for decades, Jim Buttrey is used to the courtroom, having handled many high-profile capital cases, including that of a serial killer.

This month, the Harvard graduate trades in the courtroom for the stage in a part he was born to play: the Clarence Darrow-inspired character, Henry Drummond, in Community Theatre of Howell's production of "Inherit the Wind."

"It's a good play," said Buttrey, who has a photo of Clarence Darrow in his Howell office. "I figure if I'm going to try acting, I should try something that isn't that much of a stretch for me. I went down and auditioned. I really wanted to deliver some of these lines in the play."

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and April 11-12, and 2 p.m. April 6 and April 13 at the Howell High School Freshman Campus in Howell. Advance tickets are $13 for adults or $11 for students and seniors. Tickets at the door cost $15 for adults or $13 for students and seniors.

Buttrey, who has defended upward of 10,000 felony cases in his career, said he did not expect to get cast because "it's the great American drama, and you don't cast the lead as the guy who never acted." Plus, he told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, he would have to miss the first three weeks of rehearsal.

Vera Cunningham, the play's director, said she was impressed by Buttrey -- the only actor who came to the audition with his lines already memorized.

"He was absolutely the best person for that role of the folks who auditioned," Cunningham said. "He was perfect."

The play is based on the 1925 case of Tennessee v. John Scopes, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It took place in a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom, where a jury decided the fate of Scopes, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. Scopes' guilt or innocence -- he was found guilty and fined $100, which was later overturned on a technicality -- was not the focus of the play, however.

"It's a play with an important message, and that is tolerance for the viewpoint of other people," Cunningham said. "It's in the headlines every day. The authors have taken the Scopes Monkey Trial as a starting point, but they were really actually writing about the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s.

"They used the Scopes Monkey Trial as a metaphor for this. The theme is far broader," she added. "It's Clarence Darrow fighting for the right of every person to think and come to their own opinions based on accurate information."

Buttrey agreed, noting: "One of the premises is all people get to think."

"Inherit the Wind" is a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that debuted in 1955. The fictionalized story was a means to discuss the then-contemporary McCarthy hearings.

In the play, Drummond is a nationally known attorney who was once a close friend and political confidante of the play's prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, who is played by Brian Bickel. Brady is based on William Jennings Bryan, a famous orator.

"My esteemed opponent is really good," Buttrey said about Bickel.

Buttrey breaks into character, reciting his lines: "Can you buy back his respectability by making him a coward? I understand what Bert's going through. It's the loneliest feeling in the world."

"I could go on and on," Buttrey laughed. "There's a lot of good lines in this play, and I have most of them."

Cunningham said the cast and crew are "having a ball," especially watching Buttrey, who, as a public defender for decades, brings real-life experience and humor to the role.

Cunningham said the play has a "wonderful, talented cast," who is doing a "fantastic job creating their characters." She said there is a lot of humor, and she believes the audience will "love the show," which runs about two-and-a-half hours.

"I hope it will give (the audience) pause for reflection," she said.

Published: Thu, Apr 10, 2014


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