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
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
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
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
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.