BWW Review: ALABAMA STORY Explores Censorship and Racism, Makes One Laugh and Think
This, as the opening line of Alabama Story tells us, is a story about two rabbits. It's a story about 1959 Montgomery, where cotton is king, where conservative white men call all the shots, and where books that might be about integration are censored. It is a battle of wills between a segregationist senator and a cultivated state librarian regarding a children's book wherein one rabbit happens to be black and one happens to be white. It is a story of childhood friends Lily and Joshua who encounter one another later in life and reminisce over their shared memories while illuminating the dramatic differences in their human experience. It is based on a true story. It is reflective of many true stories.
This play is also shocking, appalling, clever, and remarkably funny. Playwright Kenneth Jones' consideration to the story's many facets and the interesting structure give this piece a profound complexity. The overlapping dialogue is smart, effective, and affective, particularly in the more climactic scenes, and his concurrent plotlines intersect in a way that is unexpected and surprising.
Jeanne Paulsen as librarian Emily Wheelock Reed is as comical and endearing as she is awkwardly straightforward. Carl Palmer as Senator Higgins is deliciously antagonistic - the kind of actor who makes an audience member a bit uncomfortable even as he's smiling as himself at curtain call.
Corey Allen as Joshua Moore and Anna O'Donoghue as Lily Whitfield are wonderful opposite one another, each bringing depth and compassion to their roles. Larry Paulsen as picture book author Garth Williams, narrator, and a host of others, makes this cast seem much larger with his many believable character incarnations. Special kudos to Carl Howell as Thomas Franklin, Reed's assistant, whose onstage chemistry with Jeanne Paulsen is marvelous, and whose second-act monologue is delivered with perfect dialect, perfect timing, and perfect inflection, showing the mighty force of his superior acting chops.
William Bloodgood's black, white, and shades-of-gray scenic design has very few moving parts, but is as grand and beautiful as an old library would be, and Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes (and oooooo, especially Donoghue's Tiffany-blue dress) are exceptionally crafted and perfectly tailored to compliment each character.
This play is about an ugly place and time in our country's history, but it is perhaps more relevant than ever. It is smart. It is worth seeing.