Albany Civic Theater Shares a Compelling and Rewarding “Alabama Story”
ACT is presenting the Capital Region premiere of “Alabama Story” by Kenneth Jones, certainly one of the finest plays produced in the area this year.
A black rabbit is marrying a white rabbit in “The Rabbit’s Wedding,” a children’s book by the celebrated author and illustrator Garth Williams (Matthew Side, playing the author and multiple roles), known for his illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White. It is 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama and State Librarian Emily Reed (Lucy Breyer) has selected the book to be available in the libraries across the state. It has come to the attention of segregationist State Senator Higgins (Richard Cross) who claims the book is a nefarious plot to promote interracial marriage. The potential troubles are pointed out to the librarian by her clerk Thomas Franklin (the invaluable Steve Maggio).
Running alongside these true events is the invented story of a black man, Joshua Moore (Marquis Heath), and white woman, Lily Whitfield (Heather Sheridan), who coincidentally are meeting on the streets of Montgomery 20 years after knowing each other. They grew up together in a large house in Demopolis, or rather, she grew up in the house and Joshua and his mother who was the family maid were in the carriage house next door. They haven’t seen each other since they were 12 and something happened which precipitated Joshua and his mother’s hasty move. Joshua is traveling to Montgomery from his home in Detroit to work in his mother’s church on Civil Rights concerns while Lily is visiting her father who is in failing health in one of the city’s hospitals. They are the pulsing human side to the theoretical debates in the State House.
The play opens with all six characters introducing themselves, the setting and the stakes involved with each one ending with “Tell me a story.” You do get at least six stories. The play is a curious history, a mystery, a romance, a gentle comedy, a satire and an impassioned plea for compassion and understanding in the face of untrammeled bigotry.
There is an air of ridiculousness about the situation, two bunnies of different colors posing a threat to the social order? Your chuckling will soon subside in the face of Richard Cross’s strong and sly performance as the Senator who takes on what he sees as this threat of racial intermingling. He is all courtly manners and false bonhomie while introducing bills to extradite negroes, require state citizenship of library officials and threaten funding of the library with “our tax dollars.” It’s a great performance which is easy to like. Unfortunately, the demagogue and his hateful minions are still among us or it would be easier to see him as a nostalgic, pure figure of fun. Cross insures we see the present threat.
Lucy Breyer, a native Alabamian, invests Miss Reed with all the starch, humor and common sense required in this brave, principled champion of free expression. The physical difference between Cross and Breyer accentuates the lopsided battle and makes you concerned for the diminutive lady. She persists with a twinkle in the face of adversity.
Matthew Side has a terrifically funny speech opening the second act as the children’s author and illustrator Williams explaining his motivations in creating the book. He also wittily plays multiple roles including a virulently racist politician and serves admirably as the evening’s host.
Heather Sheridan is new to the area and ACT (Breyer and Heath are also making their ACT debuts) and is a most welcome addition to the acting community. She is energetic, beautiful and clear spoken. Her scenes with Joshua are filled with a sunny optimism that you feel are unsupportable. Nice work. Marquis Heath has been an enthusiastic figure on area stages for a few years now and this performance marks a great step forward in his growth and maturity as an actor. He has always had the fire but now has a restraint and focus that scalds the stage.
Steve Maggio as the assistant to the librarian, Thomas Franklin, commands this gentle tale with his quiet intelligence, nervous demeanor and knowing humor. He is compulsively watchable throughout doing very little and his second act monologue about his mentor is very moving. Maggio has always been a great addition to any cast list but this is my favorite performance of his yet.
The stage is divided into three areas with the library stage right and a garden (metaphorically?) locked up stage left. Set design by Adam Coons. Director Barbara Davis has done a thoroughly commendable job telling the story with her actors but her sure hand doesn’t extend to the multiple scene changes. Frequent black-outs and waits for the next scene to start slowed the evening down, not fatally but unnecessarily.
Ms. Davis’s and Albany Civic Theater’s choice of material is exemplary though. “Alabama Story” is a thoroughly satisfying evening of theater telling the story of a curiously amusing anecdote in our history and how the forces that rose up in opposition are nothing to be laughed at. A charming, chilling parable for our times.
Playwright Kenneth Jones will be in attendance and participate in a post show Q&A after the Sunday, 11/10 matinee.