It’s a pleasure to have the chance to see another professional production at the Pioneer Theatre. For this reviewer, at least, that opportunity doesn’t come around often enough. And professional and polished is what you get in Pioneer’s latest production, Alabama Story, which opened January 9th.
If you have a love of reading and a love of justice, this is the play for you. Alabama Story had a reading at the U of U last year, and this is its world premier production. The play by Kenneth Jones is largely factual, and chronicles a little-known slice of the Civil Rights struggle that took place in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958. This play sheds light on the lovely story of an illustrated children’s book by Garth Williams, famous as the illustrator of Charlotte’s Web. His book, meant for three- to seven-year-olds, is called The Rabbits’ Wedding and featured two rabbits surrounded by their friends in a moonlit setting. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the rabbits were different colors – black and white.
Structurally, this play made a lot of sense. It would seem the playwright took a prompt from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. There is a “stage manager” type opening with Stephen D’Ambrose as Williams playing the author of the book, telling us that “somewhere between the lines is a true story.” D’Ambrose is vastly likeable as he captures the easy drawl of an archetypal Southern gentleman. He is excellent as well in several smaller roles, each clearly distinct from one another, disappearing into each one.
As the progenitor of this battle on a bookshelf, Garth Williams steadfastly maintains that his fuzzy creatures were never intended as a race allegory, but simply invented as an artistic choice to make a distinction between his characters through the use of color and texture. As the seed for Alabama Story, The Rabbits’ Wedding is written with no frills, but the playwright has exercised a beautiful use of language in many of the passages. Kenneth Jones has managed to incorporate the signs of the times in 1959 Montgomery, Alabama, when movies were the latest Bible epics; when Marilyn Monroe was at the height of her stardom. But things were different in Montgomery. Conservative attitudes linked segregationists to their other favorite cause: the Red Scare, notoriously exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
As the only African American in the play, Joshua Moore, played eloquently by Samuel Ray Gates, demonstrates why reminiscences mean quite different things to different people. The parallel story of Joshua and Lily highlight the differences in what was expected back in the day, and more importantly, why things had to change. Lily had a crush on Joshua when they were children. But Lily is white and her father caught them. Now years later, Lily looks back at her hometown and asks, “Why would anyone leave?” Joshua has a different recollection: “I saw my blood in your mother’s garden.” Joshua has come back to volunteer in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church, but not to worship. His interest is to “improve this world, not the next.” He tells Lily, “You should know about the world beyond your world.”
As Lily, Kate Middleton has a role that is difficult to appreciate. Hers is not a particularly sympathetic character, but Middleton ably takes her from denial to understanding. When Kate, as an adult, asks for forgiveness, it’s too late for Joshua to grant it, “but we can travel past it.”
As an English major myself, having a Librarian as the leading character is delicious. Emily Reed is played by Greta Lambert with authority and calm assurance. When the local papers attack the book under scrutiny, Reed renders their argument impotent with a simple, “No byline, no credibility.” Lambert is a great choice to elucidate the playwright’s words, delivering values cherished by scholars: Kindness, amity, respect for others, interest in the natural world; “all this is given to us by books.” Lambert is assured and letter-perfect. “Reading rescues people from the shadows of the unenlightened night.” It is refreshing to see that rare occurrence in the theater: the leading character is a mature woman.
The modern Civil Rights struggle is now currently marking events that happened fifty years ago. Back then, Alabama’s state legislature passed laws specifically targeting Emily Reed. They also took a long time approving the library budget when in prior years it was a matter of course. But the parallels in the 21st century continue. Today we see state legislatures passing laws establishing a “state firearm,” curtailing voter rights pretending they are preventing runaway fraud, and gerrymandering districts beyond recognition – a mixture of pettiness and malice that civil rights activists must still use their resources to oppose. Fifty years since the civil rights struggle was first televised, this play is relevant.
The opposition is in the person of State Senator Higgins, played by William Perry, intimidating in both his power and paternalism. He prefers the boyish Tom Sawyer to the prescient Huck Finn. Perry’s performance was relaxed and well-matched to Lambert’s Reed. Higgins, too, is not sympathetic, but Perry lets us see why he is a hero to some, a fool to others, attempting to “maintain the strongest grasp on the past.” An older colleague tells him that The Rabbits’ Wedding has become his tar baby – a snare that holds him and Alabama up to ridicule.
Amid the misspelled epithets, the senator and librarian agree only on one thing: The future is important. For vastly different reasons as the audience shall see. The librarian calls the senator’s efforts “saber rattling” – the very term I remember from the political snark of the early 60’s.
As Thomas Franklin, Miss Reed’s assistant, Seth Andrew Bridges is her protector. In a moving scene, Bridges’ Franklin quietly reveals himself to be a warrior, protecting the protector of books. Here we learn why bravery is the uppermost value of the Civil Rights movement.
The actors in this production know how to tell a story, but director Karen Azenberg’s use of the stage, and the big set, designed by James Noone, really brought us inside. The set featured tall photographic flats that majestically open up into a beautifully detailed mid-century office. This room rolls toward the audience on a platform, where a large portion of the action takes place. Posters on the wall include book covers for Atlas Shrugged and other contemporary novels. The design deftly takes us from the library archival office to the Alabama state house and back. Added to that is Brenda Van Der Weil’s costuming which is perfectly and stylishly designed for the period.
I love how language itself is so important in this play. It was a powerful reminder to me of why I love books. Come discover the “hot, bright light of the real world” of Alabama Story. Miss Reed says it best: “My four favorite words: Tell me a story.”
[The Rabbits’ Wedding is currently on sale for $14.95 (regularly $17.95) on Amazon. It was on the American Library Association’s list of recommended books for children in 1958.]
January 9 – 24, 2015
7:30 pm Mon – Thurs, 8:00 pm Fri & Sat, 2:00 pm Saturday matinees
FREE parking in the Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lot, one block south of the theatre.
Tickets: $38 – $44. Rush tickets available; call the box office for details.
Pioneer Theatre Company
University of Utah Campus, 300 South 1400 East, SLC, UT 84114