Does a sponge think?

That question is posed to Matthew Harrison Brady, three-time presidential candidate and champion of religious fundamentalism during the second act of "Inherit the Wind," Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's magnificent drama that opened Wednesday evening at the U. of U.'s Pioneer Memorial Theatre."If the good Lord wishes a sponge to think," Brady responds confidently, "it thinks."

Henry Drummond, the brilliant agnostic attorney who has been hired to defend Bertram Cates, a teacher accused of teaching Darwinism in the public schools, seizes the moment.

"This man," Drummond says, pointing to Cates, "wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge. He wishes to think."

That moment, more than any other, crystalizes the message of "Inherit the Wind" as it is communicated in this fine Pioneer Theatre Company production. This is not a dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial, although it certainly borrows liberally from that famous 1925 case. Nor is it an attempt to take a stand in the ongoing philosophical battle between evolutionists and creationists, although Lawrence and Lee's script does seem to draw a distinct battle line between science and religion.

Indeed, the thing that helps maintain this play's timelessness is that it carefully keeps its artistic aim on the notion that a man has a right to think his own thoughts, using the evolution controversy only as a means by which to explore the main issue. And if you doubt the current application of such concepts, let me say two words that will help bring it into focus:

Salman Rushdie.

Enough said.

Philosophical considerations aside, "Inherit the Wind" remains an American theatrical standard because of two larger-than-life characters - Brady and Drummond - and the success of any production of the play is to a great extent measured by the respective successes of the actors in those roles. PTC has stretched its long casting arm all the way to New York to bring a pair of experienced Broadway actors to Utah in roles that are clearly patterned after William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, the two combatants in the real-life Scopes trial.

Humbert Allen Astredo cuts an imposing figure as Brady, who is hailed as a favorite son in a small town called "the buckle on the Bible Belt." Not only is Astredo appropriately large in stature, but he also creates a sizable character that commands audience attention. The best thing about Astredo's Brady is the humanity he gives the man. This is no cardboard Goliath, a fanatic busily looking for a new national platform. This Brady seems sincere in his faith and firm in his convictions - a fact that adds power to the play's closing scenes.

Matching Astredo stride for stride is Richard Russell Ramos as Drummond. Ramos is a much smaller man than Astredo, and yet he manages to create a character that feels every bit as big. He also gives Drummond a gentleness that isn't often seen in the part, and a physicality that is impressively communicative. Both Ramos and Astredo have a tendency to rush through dialogue, but their clarity in diction and effectiveness in interpretation seems to compensate for that.

Of course, interpretation is largely a director's responsibility, which means that credit should go to guest director Geoffrey Sherman. Although some of his staging seems a bit awkward - especially in crowd scenes - his actors present a consistent style and a steady pace. There is a consistency to his technical interpretation, especially with Ariel Ballif's incredible moving setting and K.L. Alberts' wonderful period costumes. Cheers, too, to Karl E. Haas' lighting, which drenches the stage with hot light that makes you feel the oppressive summer heat that figures so prominently in the storyline.

And as long as we're passing out plaudits, let's don't forget the supporting cast, which works hard and energetically throughout. Robert Blackburn has a strong turn as the overly zealous Reverend Brown, and Joyce Cohen is just right as his daughter, torn between her love for her father and her affection for Cates. Richard Jewkes plays Cates with a nice mixture of passion and confusion, Terry Layman is caustic and cynical as journalist E.K. Hornbeck, and Richard Mathews thankfully plays the judge without the usual wishy-washiness.

The entire cast performs crisply and with precision, helping to make PTC's "Inherit the Wind" a must for people who like good drama.

And who like to think.