reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Theatre can be, and is, many things. It entertains, it tells us stories, it teaches, it enlightens, it uncovers truths and it reminds us of important lessons. Kenneth Jones’ significant play, Alabama Story, does all these things and Actors Theatre of Indiana has brought it to us here in central Indiana.

It is an engaging production, directed by Jane Unger. In it, we are shown the remarkable story, set in 1959 Montgomery, of Alabama State Librarian Emily Reed, a woman who stood up to the prevailing segregationist views of the time in the Deep South. Remarkably, the challenges she faced were brought on by a rather baffling reaction by a diehard politician, State Senator E.W. Higgins, over a children’s book – The Rabbits’ Wedding. The senator wanted the book to be banned in the state of Alabama.

The book, by Garth Williams, tells the sweet story of two rabbits, who because of their kind connection, decide to get married. There is a fine celebration, which includes many of the other forest creatures. The problem that Senator Higgins perceived was that one of the rabbits was white, while the other was black.

Cynthia Collins take the role of librarian Emily Reed in ATI’s “Alabama Story”

The show’s performers do great justice to the material, providing honest and compelling turns. Cynthia Collins plays the central role of Ms. Reed, showing a dedicated, albeit slightly quirky, library administrator whose main goal is to provide the best of books to the state’s libraries. Her librarian assistant, Thomas Franklin, is offered by Samuel Wick in a likewise idiosyncratic personification. These two actors take steady steps around their characters’ dilemma and are, to my senses, a kind of small ensemble – supportive, reliable, and moving in step with each other when facing the adversities that approach them. The one rare conflict between them is beautifully played, adding a layer of authenticity to the co-workers’ warm professional regard for each other.

Don Farrell’s Senator Higgins is bombastic, self-righteous, and disagreeably immovable on his imagined dangers of segregation. Farrell keeps the fire going in his man without becoming a caricature, welding together the sure offensiveness of his ideas and the savvy smoothness of his political ploys. Paul Tavianini handles multiple roles – including as the narrating author of the book in question.

from left – Cameron Stuart Bass (Joshua Moore), Maeghan Looney (Lily Whitfield) and Don Farrell (Senator E.W. Higgins)

An important secondary plot is written into the play – Lily Whitfield (Maeghan Looney) is in Montgomery to aid her ailing father. In a park near the hospital, she meets up with an old acquaintance from her childhood – Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass). Joshua is black, and around the same age as the well-to-do Mrs. Whitfield. His mother had worked in Mrs. Whitfield’s family home as a domestic, and the two children had been playmates for a time. The meeting brings back a memory of a fairly innocent but taboo moment when they shared a kiss at age 12. The fallout from that led to Joshua and his mother leaving.

Bass and Ms. Looney play out their reoccurring meetings in genuinely truthful terms. She is naively “southern belle flirtatious”, while he stays proper and cordial. Their dilemma – he remembers the significant occurrence (the trouble from which changed his life), while she has conveniently “forgotten” – symbolizes the barrier segregation brings to their lives.

Bottomline: This play uncovers a sorry time in America, but it celebrates the strength to overcome which was also present at that time. It is an important story, showing the attitudes, the conflicting ideas and ideals, the politics, the ignorance – though it is certainly not entirely humorless. I hope you will go see it, and take a young person along – it might just cause some interesting conversation.

Alabama Story continues at ATI’s Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through November 17th. You can get information about the schedule and tickets by calling 317.843.3800 or by logging on at http://www.atistage.org .

  • photos by Ed Stewart