At the time it was heralded as "The World's Most Famous Court Trial": former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan going jowl-to-jawbone with the dynamic Clarence Darrow in a stiflingly hot Dayton, Tenn., courtroom over whether or not a teacher named John Scopes could teach Darwin's theory of evolution in the public schools.

The Scopes Monkey Trial, they called it - the great legal confrontation between Christian fundamentalism and the then-new scientific agnostic. And every time a theater group decides to do Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's classic courtroom drama "Inherit the Wind," as Pioneer Theatre Company will be doing March 15-April 1, the memory of Bryan vs. Darrow in 1925 is evoked.Somewhat wrongfully.

"`Inherit the Wind' is not history," Lawrence and Lee wrote of their play. "The events which took place in Dayton, Tenn., . . . are clearly the Genesis of the play. It has, however, an Exodus entirely of its own.

"The collision between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but it was not drama," the writers continued. "Moreover, the issues of their conflict have acquired new dimensions and meaning in the years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse. So `Inherit the Wind' does not pretend to be journalism. It is theater."

Still, it is almost impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. When the play opened in Broadway's National Theatre in April, 1955, it was generally described as a "re-enactment" of the Scopes trial. Some reviews even referred to the leading characters as "Bryan" and "Darrow" instead of the fictional names of Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond.

But if Lawrence and Lee were distressed at having their play interpreted by the media as a dramatization, they had to be pleased with the reviews. The New York Daily News called it "one of the most exciting dramas of the last decade," while the World-Telegram said it was "a tidal wave of a drama . . . atriumphant production."

For Paul Muni, the success of "Inherit the Wind" on Broadway was especially satisfying. He had taken himself out of show business for several years, but his return to the boards as Drummond (the Darrow character) earned for him the finest reviews of his career. With a cast that included Ed Begley as Brady and Tony Randall as bemused New York City newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (a thinly veiled version of reality's H.L. Mencken), the play remained a Broadway hit for more than 800 performances.

The PTC production won't run that long, obviously, but the casting appears to be similarly formidable. Guest director Geoffrey Sherman (who also directed PTC's "The Importance of Being Earnest" in 1986) has a cast that includes Broadway actors Richard Russell Ramos and Humbert Allen Astredo as Drummond and Brady, respectively. PTC audiences may remember Ramos as the director of the company's excellent 1986 production of "The Man Who Came to Dinner." New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr called Astredo "the most promising new actor on Broadway" for his performance in "Les Blancs."

Sherman's cast also includes visiting New York actors Robert Blackburn, Terry Layman and Richard Mathews and local professionals Joyce Cohen, Richard Jewkes, Michael Ruud, Max Robinson, Mary Ethel Gregory, Alan Nash and Patrick Page. Sets are by Ariel Ballif, with costumes by K.L. Alberts and lighting by Karl E. Haas.

But as far as Sherman is concerned, the star of the production is the Lawrence and Lee script, a respected piece of dramatic literature that, according to the authors, "assaults those who would constrict any human being's right to think, to teach, to learn."

"Humanity is on trial," Lawrence and Lee continue. "Anyone who would limit thought is on trial."

Added Sherman: "Lawrence and Lee make the point that the action of the play `might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.' Can we be sure it is not happening today?"

"Inherit the Wind" will play nightly except Sundays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees March 25 and April 1 and a student matinee March 30. For ticket information call the PTC box office at 581-6961.