This past Friday audiences were treated to “Alabama Story,” which made its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company and cleverly told a story within a story about censorship, love and how reading a book can change our hearts and minds.
“Alabama Story” is an original script written by playwright and theatre journalist Kenneth Jones, who weaves a tale within a tale about The Rabbits’ Wedding, a children’s book by Garth Williams, that caused controversy in 1959 Montgomery, Ala. by characterizing the marriage of a white rabbit to a black rabbit. Based on real-life events, Jones recreated the past to tell the true story of strong-minded librarian Emily Reed (played by Greta Lambert), who locks horns with hard-hearted Sen. E. W. Higgins (played by William Parry) as he tries to banish both Reed and The Rabbits’ Wedding from the Alabama library system.
Jones does more than recreate an historical event. He also tells the tale of the wealthy Lily Whitfield (played by Kate Middleton) and civil rights activist Joshua Moore (played by Samuel Ray Gates), who were separated during childhood because of their forbidden romance and reunite in adulthood as the events being spearheaded by Sen. Higgins are unfolding.
The play starts slowly, beginning with the entrance of Higgins, who makes an unannounced visit to Reed in an attempt to test the temperature of her tolerance for the children’s book that ruffled so many feathers. The best parts of “Alabama Story” begin and end with the clever match between these two strong-willed personalities. The carefully constructed interplay between these two is a joy to behold, specifically in one scene where Higgins tries to trap Reed into agreeing that the good people of Bigbee County would have no need for a book about building igloos.
Initially, Higgins dances around the subject of The Rabbits’ Wedding being desegregationist propaganda and finds that Reed is a willing dance partner who cleverly forces Higgins to come clean. Parry creates a character who embodies everything people dislike about politicians, but he manages to humanize him as well. The biggest compliment that can be paid to Lambert’s performance is that she leaves the audience wanting to be children again, listening to a librarian telling stories.
Director Karen Azenberg does a wonderful job of blending the two storylines together nearly seamlessly with the narratives of Lily and Joshua often running side by side with the interplay between Reed and Higgins. The two stories are brought together through the narration of Garth Williams (played by Stephen D’Ambrose) who wears many different hats as he injects himself into the story at times as a journalist, politician and as a random citizen of Montgomery.
The set pieces are just as important to the play as the story itself. It’s easy for the audience to imagine they are in the deep South, sitting on a park bench in front of a courthouse in the town square. The library office of Reed is nearly perfectly constructed to the period and looks like it could be a set piece from the television series “Mad Men,” from its antique radio to the poster of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
“Alabama Story” is a well-balanced confluence of events where clever dialogue, excellent acting and beautifully constructed set pieces all come together to tell a story that isn’t fueled by bombastic theatrics or heavy exposition but rather a gentle narrative that reminds us about the power of the human spirit. Perhaps most importantly the play reminds us about the wonder and awe that comes from reading and leaves the audience wanting to go home and get lost in a good book. This notion is put most eloquently by Reed when she says, “Reading rescues people from the shadows of the unenlightened night.”