“ALABAMA STORY,” through Jan. 24, Pioneer Theatre Company, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org)
An Alabama librarian who stood firm against the demands of segregationists during the civil rights movement is the central figure in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Alabama Story.” But each character in emerging playwright Kenneth Jones’ finely crafted new play leads to a rich theater experience that is being warmly received in its premiere staging.
“Alabama Story” is based on the story of Emily Wheelock Reed, who was undeterred in her opposition of state Senator E.O. Eddins beginning in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. With support from the White Citizens Council, the senator led a fight to remove an innocent depiction of two “fuzzy rabbits” in the children’s book “The Rabbits’ Wedding” because of the view that the story promoted miscegenation — the mixing of different races — because the groom bunny was illustrated as a black bunny and the bride bunny as white.
“I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings” is the famous quote effectively recited from the stage by the book’s author-illustrator, Garth Williams, another prominent character in “Alabama Story.”
His tale of rabbits “was not written for adults, who will not understand it because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate,” Williams said.
Stephen D’Ambrose wonderfully portrays the folksy artist and serves as a narrator who also interacts with each of the other five actors in a clear homage to the Stage Manager character in “Our Town,” the Thornton Wilder classic play of “the life of a village against the life of the stars.” D’Ambrose’s second-act opening monologue delivered directly to the audience is one of the central strengths of the production’s success.
His talents are matched by the steely performance of Greta Lambert as Reed, the fiercely determined proponent of the book with “no political significance.” Lambert has perfected her craft after previous performances in roles such as Blanche DuBois, Hedda Gabler, Sarah Bernhardt, Eliza Doolittle and Miss Havisham at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg first directed readings of “Alabama Story” at the Southern Writers’ Project in 2013. Azenberg further assisted the playwright in honing the play at PTC’s inaugural "Play-by-Play" script-in-hand series of readings last April.
The other expert actors are William Parry as the senator and Seth Andrew Bridges as Thomas, Reed’s quiet library assistant and reference desk supervisor.
The two remaining actors are Samuel Ray Gates as Joshua and Kate Middleton as Lily. To introduce the heroics of Martin Luther King Jr. in this first struggle for universal civil rights is the story of Lily and Joshua, and their recollections of growing up together as children is a sweet and enhancing aspect of the drama, although their portion is not fully integrated into the account of the librarian-senator battle.
Beyond the proficient direction by Azenberg, the contributions of scenic designer James Noone and the U.’s Brenda Van der Wiel as costume designer add to the production’s success. It’s especially enjoyable to see the actors’ wardrobes subtly mature along with their characters during the course of the play. Van der Wiel's ultrafeminine dresses for Lily are strikingly colorful illustrations of the privileged Southern young women in the era.
“Alabama Story” is Azenberg's first world-premiere staging, and it is a beautiful production full of warmth and endearing moments that will be deeply appreciated.
Content advisory: “Alabama Story” contains a brief mention of sexuality, brief mild language and smoking. According to PTC’s website, the production is suitable for children ages 10 and older.