– By Cate Marquis –
The Repertory Theater of St. Louis begins the new year with a true winner, a play that seems to have it all: drama, humor, conflict, human warmth, and history with a message for today. ALABAMA STORY, which runs through January 27, is easily the Rep’s best production this season, and even one of the standouts in its long history.
Paul Mason Barnes directs this new play based a true story of a state librarian who stood strong against censorship and the pressure of a powerful Alabama state senator over a children’s book.
As one of the few theaters in town that has not fully succumbed to the lucrative lure of the musical, that St. Louis favorite, and is still doing fully-staged dramatic productions, the Rep’s fans have an expectation of high quality plays and excellent productions. ALABAMA STORY hits all the marks.
Based on a true story of a state librarian in 1959 Alabama, who defied censorship pressure from a powerful segregationist politician focused on a children’s book, ALABAMA is both an amazing, inspiring story and a highly entertaining play. The children’s book at the center of the uproar was “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” written and illustrated by Garth Williams, who also illustrated such children’s classics as “Charlotte’s Web” and the “Little House On The Prairie” books. The book whipped up opposition among segregationist forces supporting laws against interracial marriage because one rabbit was white and the other was black.
ALABAMA STORY wisely embraces the absurdity-based humor inherent in this true story, which created a firestorm of controversy that reached national news level, all over a children’s book about rabbits. As the playwright states in the program notes, this play is about “censorship rather than Civil Rights,” although segregation is a big part of this story. Book banning and censorship is the underlying point, as well as reading into something fictional a political meaning the author did not intend, both timely subjects now.
Garth William’s gentle little children’s book “The Rabbits’ Wedding” might have received little notice, despite admiring reviews, had it not been for the attention given it by the segregationist controversy, one of many books made famous by attempts to ban them from public library shelves. The play and the cast make full use of the comic irony in that, but none of the characters in this play are treated as simple villains, not matter who misguided their actions. Each is presented as fully-rounded human beings, so the focus remains on the ideas at stake.
One of the permanent pleasures of going to the Rep are the outstanding sets, impressive, architectural and often beautiful structures that frequently are as much a character in the play as the actors. Rep sets far exceed any others on local stages but occasionally the Rep tops its own high standards, as it does for ALABAMA STORY. The stage is dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookcases, slightly offset and packed with monochrome books, with a dais with a desk and chair serving as the librarian’s office, and a few other props to suggest street scenes outside and a few other locations. The flexibility of the set is built into the design and perfectly frames each scene.
Jeanne Paulsen brilliantly plays the sharp-witted, no-nonsense Alabama state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed. Reed chose the book from among a list of new titles recommended by the uncontroversial American Library Association for that year, but then stood up to the political pressure applied by Alabama State Senator E.W. Higgins (Carl Palmer) remove it from the library system. Senator Higgins launched this book-ban crusade after he read about the book in a local pro-segregation newspaper. Wheelock never backed down to the absurd bluster over a children’s book and earned her place in history as a stalworth of the First Amendment. Among the librarian’s few allies is her assistant Thomas Franklin (a very good Carl Howell), a young Southern man who first gave her a heads-up about the segregationist alarm over the seemingly innocuous book.
The play is narrated by illustrator/author Garth Williams (Larry Paulsen), who interjects an element of dry humor, wondering about all this fuss about a children’s book about rabbits, as he describes the events and fills in backstory about them.
As the narrator of the play, Larry Paulsen hits just the right tone slightly bemused tone in describing the various headline-grabbing events sparked by a cute little children’s book. Larry Paulsen also plays a number of smaller supporting roles throughout.
The actual 1959 controversy was well-documented in newspapers, so there was a wealth of material for the playwright to draw on in crafting dialog. Some of the most outrageous statement made by Sen. Higgins are direct quotes from the real person on which he is based, State Senator E. O. Eddins, known as “Big Ed.” Williams himself (Larry Paulsen) notes his book was only intended for children and that use of black and white rabbits was just an aesthetically-pleasing choice for a black-and-white illustrated book, a choice influenced by Japanese prints rather than racially messaging. Larry Paulsen is also excellent in a number of smaller supporting roles.
The real star of the play is Jeanne Paulsen, who truly shines as this admirable yet often bitingly funny librarian Emily Wheelock. Jeanne Paulsen’s Wheelock surprises us time and again with her resourcefulness and commitment to the ideal of libraries to promote the “free flow of information.”
The play’s true story is bolstered by a parallel fictional one that personalizes the issue of segregation, about two childhood friends, one white and one black, who meet again as adults in the Alabama capital where the story takes place. Lily Whitfield (Anna O’Donoghue) was the daughter of white, wealthy cotton magnate, in Demopolis, Alabama, the same town where Lillian Hellman set her story “The Little Foxes.” Lily’s childhood best friend was Joshua Moore (Corey Allen), the son of an African-American woman who worked for her family and lived in a small house on their property. Now a successful businessman in the North, Josh runs into Lily in Montgomery, on a trip to back to Alabama.
ALABAMA STORY is a wonderfully engrossing and entertaining drama that is the best possible start for the new year at the Rep. The thoughtful, clever telling of this timely truth-based story, the fabulous sets, and wonderful performances make ALABAMA STORY a gem, and a must-see for all audiences.
© Cate Marquis