After the week we’ve all had politically, a play about rabbits and racists was just what I needed.
In this play based on a true story, it’s 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama, and Emily Reed (Cate Damon), the state librarian, is under fire from State Senator E. W. Higgins (Rand Foerster) for one of the books she’s advocating for the shelves of state’s libraries: The Rabbits’ Wedding, a children’s book in which a black rabbit marries a white rabbit. Higgins, well-known for his extremist views on segregation, believes it’s advocating a mixing of the races. Reed, a staunch supporter of the power of books, refuses to back down. At the same time, Joshua (Silk Johnson) and Lily (Melenie Freedom Flynn) meet by chance outside a hospital; best friends as children when his mother was her family’s maid, they haven’t seen one another in twenty years. Lily is still living a very sheltered upper-class life, while Joshua has joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his fight for equality.
The story of Reed’s fight dominates the production; Damon’s performance is the clear standout and her character is the epitome of librarians everywhere. She’s human and flawed but strong and brave, and her refusal to budge is awe-inspiring (and, at least for this viewer, tear-inducing.) The power of words takes the forefront here: words in the books, words in the media and how they affect the senator, Reed and the community (and start the furor to begin with), words in the hate mail she receives, words between Reed and the senator. Jack Grigoli, who plays the research librarian, Thomas, her assistant, and supporter, also gives a strong performance. Foerster has his moments, but grasped for his lines a number of times, throwing off the pacing of certain scenes that should have been more powerful.
Although Joshua and Lily’s story is touching, it seems as if it belongs in another play and was shoehorned in; the play itself is bloated (it needed some serious editing – at least half an hour could have been cut from the script before publication) and adding their story, which doesn’t connect to the main story other than thematically, takes away from the power of what’s happening at the library. Johnson and Flynn each had times they shone, but overall their performances lacked the fire of the rest of the performers.
It’s both disheartening and hopeful to watch this show: disheartening that we’re still fighting racists in positions of power almost 60 years later, but hopeful that, like Reed, there are always those brave individuals out there who will, no matter the cost, keep fighting the good fight. A show that’s a love letter to books, libraries and those who resist? Trust me and go. It may prove to be just what you need right now, too.
“Alabama Story”, Majestic Theater, 131 Elm Street, West Springfield, MA; through February 11; $30-$23; Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 20-minute intermission; (413) 747-7797; http://www.majestictheater.com/