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Alabama Story
by Kenneth Jones
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 4, 2019

Jeanne Paulsen, Carl Howell, Carl Palmer, Larry Paulsen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first play of the new year takes the audience on a trip to the Deep South in the early 1960s. Alabama Story, with a smart script and well-defined characters and setting, takes an important issue that is tied to its time in one way and transcends it in another. At the Rep, an excellent cast and inventive staging brings this story to life.

Based on a real incident that made news in 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama in which a childrens’ book, Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, was challenged by a state senator over its perceived pro-integration message, the play itself covers that story while painting a picture of Montgomery in that era through the use of real-life characters, as well as presenting the overall atmosphere of the time and place through the use of a fictional but highly plausible parallel story and characters. It’s told in a stylized manner, narrated by various characters at various times, and particularly by the book’s author, Williams (Larry Paulsen, who also plays a variety of other characters). The central figure is state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Jeanne Paulsen), a meticulous and conscientious librarian who sees it as her duty to protect the library’s mission and the books the library promotes. The controversy begins when her devoted assistant, Thomas Franklin (Carl Howell) shows her a newspaper headline in a local conservative paper about the book in question, and later she receives a visit from Senator Higgins (Carl Palmer)–based on the real-life senator E.O. Eddins. The senator is dedicated to his vision of the Deep South and long-standing tradition, which for him and many others includes segregation and institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, also in Montgomery, the parallel story features the surprise reunion of two childhood friends and a renewed relationship that serves to emphasize the depth of the enforced racial divide in southern society, and shows how white people were able to allow their privilege to keep them from seeing the truth of what was happening in the world. Lily (Anna O’Donaghue) is a young white woman who grew up in a wealthy family, living in the “big house” on her father’s cotton plantation. As she’s sitting on a park bench one day, she encounters Joshua (Corey Allen), who lived with his mother on Lily’s family’s property as a child, but who had to suddenly move away with his mother for reasons that Lily claims not to remember. Through the course of their interactions, we learn more about the reality of both characters’ lives, and Joshua’s efforts to make a difference in the state in which he grew up, and Lily’s gradual acknowledgment of her family’s role in reinforcing societal norms, and in what happened to Joshua’s family.

The structure of the play smoothly transitions between the main story and the parallel story, as well as incorporating more “out of time” elements like the narration. It’s almost deceptively whimsical, at times, because of the general tone that appears light but can also feature moments of poignant and challenging dramatic depth. It’s actually a lot more directly challenging than it first appears, in fact, and the characters are extremely well-defined. The cast is excellent, as well, led by Jeanne Paulsen’s remarkable performance as Reed, revealing many layers to the complex personality of this initially matter-of-fact, no-nonsense librarian. There are also strong performances from Howell as her mild-mannered but determined assistant, Thomas, and by Larry Paulsen in a various roles, most notably the eccentric, principled Williams, and also an older, weary state senator who has been a mentor of sorts to Higgins. There are also excellent performances from Allen and O’Donoghue as the reunited friends Joshua and Lily, whose story provides a lot of the depth of this play. Palmer, as Higgins, is also fine if occasionally over-the-top as the single-minded, sometimes cartoonish Higgins.

The staging and production values are a mixture of the stylistic and the more realistic, with meticulously designed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis and a more abstract, detailed set by William Bloodgood that prominently features looming bookshelves. There’s also impressive atmospheric lighting by Kenton Yeager, and an evocative soundtrack by composer and sound designer Barry G. Funderburg. All these elements, in addition to director Paul Mason Barnes’ crisp, quickly paced staging, work together to bring the audience into the world of this story, and the particular atmosphere of the Deep South in the 1950s.

Alabama Story is a surprising play in a few ways, and just what I expected in others. It’s a play that manages to explore its subject in many angles and also manages for the most part to avoid simplistic answers even with its occasionally whimsical tone. As was to be expected, it’s an impeccably staged production with the strong production values for which the Rep has come to be known. There’s a compelling story here, and a great cast. It’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

Anna O’Donoghue, Corey Allen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Alabama Story until January 27, 2019

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