Theater review: Utah company’s ‘Alabama Story’ premiere dramatically depicts divisive, unifying impact of storytelling

First Published      Last Updated Jan 13 2015 08:08 pm

Review » Dynamic direction and rich characterizations lift PTC’s production.

There are several Alabama stories in "Alabama Story," Kenneth Jones' cleverly crafted play making its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company.

There's the story about a feisty librarian who won't let a narrow-minded, segregationist state senator dictate the books she can offer her readers.

There's the story about a white woman and a black man who became childhood friends through the Uncle Remus stories their mothers read them; their past contains a life-changing incident that one refuses to remember and the other cannot forget.

There's the story about a place named Montgomery, the city in the South with "the strongest grasp on the past," where people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are trying to shape a new future for disenfranchised black Americans in 1959.

There's the story about the bonds that unite parents and children: A daughter waits hours every day to visit her ailing father; a son carries his mother's Bible as he volunteers to make integration a reality; the librarian remembers her father's library, where she discovered her love of books; her assistant "protects her" as a son would his mother; the senator wants to please his political mentor.

Finally, there's the children's story that starts the furor: A story about two rabbits, one black and one white, who get married. Their illustrator author claims he had no political agenda; he colored them that way for visual contrast, balancing yin with yang.

The play ends as it begins with the characters asking, "Tell me a story," and the unifying strand is the way stories — real and fictional — shape our lives.

Jones' articulate script brings history to life by counterpointing the personal story of Lily (Kate Middleton) and Joshua (Samuel Ray Gates) against the battle between librarian Emily Reed (Greta Lambert) and Sen. E.W. Higgins (William Parry), which is based on an actual event. Reed and Higgins clash over the children's book "The Rabbits' Wedding," which Higgins denounces as a "vehicle to promote integration" and Reed won't remove from the library.

The play consistently shows us, rather than telling us. In one scene, for example, a newspaper description of a press conference cuts to the real thing. Incidents from the two stories overlap, and Karen Azenberg's razor-sharp direction jumps back and forth between them, helped by Phil Monat's swiftly shifting lighting. PTC's new extended forestage or passerelle enables Azenberg to develop one story downstage and the other upstage simultaneously, which heightens the dramatic tension and makes the parallels clearer.

Lambert's Emily finds the perfect balance between being firm and forthright and becoming acerbic. Parry's Higgins is the archetypal old-boy Southern politician, spouting rhetoric and playing all the angles. Middleton's Lily is a true "steel magnolia," masking her strong will with feminine charm. As Joshua, Gates is dedicated and determined, a product of his past but not embittered by it. Seth Andrew Bridges plays Emily's assistant, Thomas, with a mix of loyalty and reserve, and Stephen D'Ambrose deftly juggles three separate characters, among them a reporter interestingly named Webb, the name of the newspaper editor in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," a locale — like Montgomery — with its share of provincialism and bigotry.

James Noone's stately set features three distinct playing areas, and Brenda Van Der Wiel's period costumes mirror the personalities of their wearers. Matthew and the Hope's original music and Joshua Hight's sound design carry us into Jones' "South of the imagination."

As the first of PTC's newly instated Play-by-Play reading series to receive a full production, "Alabama Story" marks an impressive debut. Its ability to dramatically merge history and personal stories promises it a life far beyond this production.



‘Alabama Story’

Playwright Kenneth Jones melds the personal and the historical into a dramatically compelling debut.

When » Reviewed Jan. 10; plays Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Jan. 24, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.

Where » Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City

Running time » Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)

Tickets » $25 to $44 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show. Half-price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; early-bird discounts for first seven shows. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information.

Also » The Utah Library Association will host a talk-back about the issues in the play after the Jan. 17 matinee.