Friday, November 8, 2019

ATI's 'Alabama Story' has a happy, book-positive ending, subject to history's editing

History may not really repeat itself, but it tends to self-amplify. Issues and personalities, shifting cultural values and resistance to change, the opposition of bigotry and tolerance, keep recycling. Progress, however defined, is inevitably compromised and flecked with unwelcome reminders, sometimes freshly outfitted to accommodate revived prejudices.
 
Group portrait of the living past: actors Cameron Stuart Bass, Maeghan Looney, Don Farrell, and Cynthia Collins as characters in "Alabama Story."


From the heyday of segregation, "Alabama Story," the current Actors Theatre of Indiana production, revisits a controversy of the 1950s. Seismic shifts in the advance toward racial justice marked a decade in which the Old South sought to hold on to the ideology of segregation. Suddenly a children's book by Garth Williams moved to the forefront of culture wars because of the happy union it depicts of one black and one white rabbit.

Kenneth Jones has fashioned a hard-hitting drama out of the heroism of an old-maid librarian (the stereotype phrasing is deliberately adopted) who resisted a campaign against the inclusion of "The Rabbits' Wedding" on the state's public library shelves. As seen in the Studio Theater Thursday night, Cynthia Collins portrays Emily Wheelock Reed as a flinty defender of the right to read, exercising her full powers as head of the Alabama Public Library Service Division. Books deemed notable by the American Library Association were recommended to Alabama librarians for acquisition, making "The Rabbit's Wedding" a political hot potato. She is supported uneasily but steadfastly by an assistant, Thomas Franklin, played both awkwardly and gracefully by Samuel L. Wick.

In her high-ranking position, Reed was subject to the Alabama legislature's influence, represented here with booming self-assertion by Don Farrell as state senator E.W. Higgins. The play holds Reed up as a warrior against unexpected hostility who turns out to display a good measure of compassion as well as  shrewdness. Sixty years ago, the controversy about the book went national and a little bit international, weakening the bulwark of enforced segregation partly because of the absurdity of seeing "The Rabbits' Wedding" as propaganda for race-mixing.

The play has a parallel story in which a black man, Joshua Moore, who went north from Alabama to pursue a career in business, returns to assist the civil-rights struggle spearheaded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  
As he passes by a "whites only" park bench in Montgomery one day, he recognizes a white childhood friend, the flirtatious and lonely Lily Whitfield, sitting there reading. They had grown up as neighbors on her father's estate, run on the old plantation model, a faux-idyllic arrangement shattered one evening by an indiscretion  prompted by the "poor little rich girl."

This makes for a provocative theme that may explain some of the erosion that the Old South was soon to experience. Though civil-rights agitation against Dixie norms was essential to change, departures in the privileged class from segregationist orthodoxy probably occurred because the reigning bigotry didn't suit everyone in the dominant group. Lily, played with fast-paced fragility and irrepressible yearning by Maeghann Looney, is shown to be isolated by her status and thus capable of feeling the disdain normally directed at the less privileged. Her evolving sympathy, rooted in fond memories of an odd fantasy bonding with Joshua over the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, symbolizes the slow dissolution of inherited prejudice.

The playwright shows Lily has more than a few blind spots and a conveniently faulty memory, but she becomes an inadvertent "fifth columnist" in her homeland's epochal struggle. I felt the chemistry of the interracial relationship was somewhat one-sided, with inadequate reciprocity from Cameron Stuart Bass as Joshua, but the mutual attraction and the obstacles it raises came across anyway.

Directed by Jane Unger, the production consistently projects simple, enduring humanity. The documentary-like presentation of the opening scene and several others is expertly managed. The dramatic conflicts are clearly drawn. The initial meeting in the librarian's office with the senator includes exquisitely timed hesitations and practiced gentility on the part of Don Farrell as the politician warms up the threat machine. 

He will stride into further prominence as the spark plug of censorship, backed up by the White Citizens' Council and fashioning an idiosyncratic profile in courage despite the misgivings of a senior senator and mentor, played by Paul Tavianini in one of several minor roles. His major appearance is as the folksy author/illustrator of "The Rabbits' Wedding," Garth Williams. 

The celebrity author's narrative and commentary provide a ready vehicle to carry "Alabama Story" forward into our hearts, with R. Bernard Killian's scenic design and technical direction once again supporting the ATI players expertly. It's not just the set's glowing bookshelves that emphasize the importance of wide, devoted, exploratory reading  — it's everything about this moving story and its characters.





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