By Lynn Venhaus
State Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed would have largely gone unnoticed in a job she did quite well had it not been for a children’s book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” which became a lightning rod for deep South segregationists in 1959.
This play by Kenneth Jones, written in 2015, has illuminated a time not that long ago – 60 years – where people were judged by the color of their skin.
While the true-life story about censorship is heart-wrenching and fascinating – and still shocking today – the addition of a fictional subplot to hammer home the fractured friendships and divisive mindset before the civil rights movement seems contrived and superfluous, rendering less effective.
The initial firestorm might have been merely a historical footnote, but now, in these emboldened nationalist times, it serves as a reminder to beware of conniving people with agendas who try desperately to control a narrative.
Once again, quicksilver mob mentalities rear their ugly head. We’re in Montgomery, Alabama, coincidentally where Martin Luther King Jr.’s church is located – but long before Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was a memorial and the Rosa Parks Museum was nearby.
Carl Palmer is lizard-like as good ol’ boy State Senator E.W. Higgins, a Dixie traditionalist and narrow-minded blowhard, who believes he’s the righteous gatekeeper of the populace. He is convinced the children’s book in question is advocating interracial marriage, which offends him.
With all his mighty power, Higgins tries to stop the book’s availability. But he meets his match in the state librarian. Emily is thrown into a reluctant fight, with her loyal assistant Thomas Franklin showing her what matters.
They both display exemplary character, valuing literature and ideas, and the principles they hold dear, but it’s a bumpy, winding road, and they grapple with the harsh glare of the national spotlight.
Jeanne Paulsen stands tall as the prim and proper librarian who struggles with doubt but stays firm as the challenges mount. This is where Carl Howell as Franklin shines, conveying how this mild-mannered wingman earns his hero stripes.
Howell’s thoughtful performance as Franklin, as meek as Palmer’s is blustery, shows the inner fortitude of an unassuming introvert who grows in stature as he reveals how he feels, and the realities of the world he inhabits. Howell is unforgettable as his moral compass nudges this kind, gentle soul into activism, as he discovers his voice.
The book’s author, Garth Williams, who was a well-known illustrator of such classic books as “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Little House on the Prairie,” is the narrator, and provides witty comments. He speaks directly to the audience with wide-eyed amusement over what havoc is wreaked about two rabbits – one white, one black in a children’s storybook.
Larry Paulsen is endearing portraying the author, who says with sincerity that he thought it was an innocent story about two rabbits of contrasting colors. Paulsen also fills several supporting roles, including a local newspaper reporter.
In the overwrought subplot, Corey Allen is affecting as Joshua Moore, a bright young black man caught up in the maelstrom. However, his counterpart, Anna O’Donoghue, as aprivileged, clueless white woman, is more broad-stroke caricature.
As she walks down a rose-colored memory lane, her drawn-out drawl seems more affected than effective, and her behavior suggests she watched too many showings of “The Long, Hot Summer” and other turgid stereotypical Southern romances.
Director Paul Mason Barnes is not subtle at all yet effectively builds the tension to the climactic result.
William Bloodgood’s scenic design is quite clever in an obvious way – and overwhelming, in a good way. Towering bookcases filled with tomes are covered in shades of grey. Bold news headlines paper the flooring.
Kenton Yeager’s lighting design enhances the drab color palette and punctuates the conversation.
While the themes of racism, bigotry and censorship are not new, the points on freedom of expression are skillfully presented.
And the fact that we’re still talking about these intolerance issues – and in a current context – should be cause for alarm.
“Alabama Story” runs Jan. 2 – 27 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road. For tickets, call the box office at 314- or visit, www.repstl.org.