Saturday, March 7, 2020

ASF: "Alabama Story"

Seven years after it debuted as a staged reading in the "Southern Writers Project", Kenneth Jones's provocative Alabama Story has -- at last -- come home to the Octagon Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in a smart-often humorous-insightful-serious-and ultimately hopeful production directed by ASF's Artistic Director, Rick Dildine. -- The play has had successful runs at regional theatres around the country, though judging by audience responses to the opening night's performance, it is back at home where it belongs.

Based on factual events in 1959 Montgomery, AL when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength, the plot revolves around a self-proclaimed nomadic librarian Emily Wheelock Reed [Greta Lambert], whose choice of ordering a children's book in which a Black and a White rabbit get married, provokes the thinly disguised bigotry of Senator Higgins [Christopher Gerson], and his insistence that the book's content does not conform to "our conservative Christian values" (sound familiar?), and does everything in his power to get Ms. Reed to comply with his wish to ban the book, or else. -- It was a very public national cause celebre in its time, but a reluctant Ms. Reed becomes more than a match for him; her adversarial strength supported by logic, facts, a passion for books and "the free flow of information", and a respect for other cultures and differences of opinion. She is aided by Montgomery native Thomas Franklin [Billy Hutto], a library employee who becomes her advisor and protector. [Would that today we all had such a man to speak the language of the local patriarchy in their own terms].

The events are narrated by Garth Williams [Alan Knoll, who also plays a number of other characters in the play]; he is the "author" of the book, who insinuates himself into the action and punctuates it with humor and sardonic remarks about the prejudices of the Old South mentality seen in the Senator and in the devastatingly intimate subplot involving an entitled white woman Lily Whitfield [Madeleine Lambert] and her childhood African-American friend Joshua Moore [Terrell Donnell Sledge], whose chance meeting in 1959 builds throughout the play as a demonstration of the selective memory of her class regarding prejudice in her family against the boy she dared to like at a time when her affection for him  resulted in violence and lasting harm to him and his family.

Under Mr. Dildine's sensitive direction, the six-member ensemble demonstrate what is best in theatre: full commitment to naturalistic storytelling and character development, and unflinching support for one another in scenes that test one's tolerance of hateful behavior. -- Mr. Knoll makes each of his characters distinct, and infuses each with humor and comfort. Mr. Hutto's unassuming demeanor disguises his character's fortitude in doing what is right and against the odds. Ms. Madeline Lambert and Mr. Sledge are a fine counterpoint to the main plot, and create some breathtakingly tragic tropes of misunderstanding that are quietly devastating. Mr. Gerson's Senator is a character we love to hate, and when matched with Ms. Greta Lambert, each one's in-the-moment discovery of the other's flaws surprises us with their clarity. -- Ms. Greta Lambert disappears into her character with apparent ease that makes her every gesture, every subtle tilt of the head, every bit of timing seem effortless and true...another master class in acting that transports us all.

The themes of Jones's script resonate all too strongly in 2020. Despite advancements in addressing racial prejudices and inequalities in America, the evidence blaring from both traditional and social media makes it abundantly clear that people with loud and persistent voices spewing hate, suspicion, and intolerance of anyone perceived as "other" are paving the way to regressive policies. -- We need such plays as Alabama Story to make us think again about the direction we are heading.