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Theater review: ‘Alabama Story’ an absorbing look at racism

Theater review: ‘Alabama Story’ an absorbing look at racism

You will often be on the edge of your psychological seat at Albany Civic Theater
Theater review: ‘Alabama Story’ an absorbing look at racism
Marquis Heath and Heather Sheridan play the two lead characters in the Albany Civic Theater production of "Alabama Story."
Photographer: Tom Killips

ALBANY — In her program bio director Barbara Davis thanks “Kenneth Jones for such a beautiful script.”

Amen.

And the Albany Civic Theater production she is helming, “Alabama Story,” goes a fair way to completely realizing its heart and humor. Indeed, you will often be on the edge of your psychological seat.

In “Alabama Story,” over the course of numerous scenes in two acts, we learn about the heroism of yet another ordinary American citizen in the face of bigotry. The year: 1959; the place: Montgomery, Alabama. Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Lucy Breyer) — efficient, witty, kind — is blind-sided by the attacks of Sen. E. W. Higgins (Richard Cross) on the inclusion in the library of a children’s book that, to his eyes, promotes integration through the fanciful wedding of a black rabbit and a white rabbit.

While this story — based in fact — develops, a parallel fictional one features Joshua Moore (Marquis Heath), an African American whose family once served the white family of Lily Whitfield (Heather Sheridan). Joshua and Lily meet by chance in Montgomery, outside a locked park (the Eden of innocence they briefly manage to re-enter?), after not seeing each other for decades. They discuss their current situations against the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights era while recalling the Jim Crow South they grew up in.

Rounding out the cast are Steve Maggio, as Thomas Franklin, Reed’s young, loyal assistant; and Matthew Side, playing numerous roles, among them Garth Williams, the writer/illustrator of “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” the book in question.

Jones’ fugal approach to storytelling, including breaking the fourth wall at strategic moments, presents the important themes — race, power, intellectual freedom, friendship of various stripes — in an absorbing way.

Davis and designer Adam M. Coons have created a serviceable set that, with the aid of Nicolas Nealon’s lighting, doesn’t require much changing of scenery, thus keeping the action flowing from one part of the stage to another.

The six performers, dressed in Beth Ruman’s evocative period costumes, are a fine ensemble.

If I wished for some subtlety in Heath’s line readings here and there, his depiction of Joshua is full of dignity and fire; Joshua is clearly the future. Side puckishly engages the audience in a couple of monologues, particularly at the top of Act II, where he conveys Williams’ common sense and irony.

Sheridan’s aptly named Lily is a complex young woman: comfortable about being to the manner born but also aware that something isn’t quite right in society. With expressive body language and glances, the gifted Sheridan alternately holds back and reveals Lily’s emotions in a stunning rhythm.

Maggio lets us into the beleaguered soul of a young man of the South. In repartee with Reed and in a self-disclosing monologue, Maggio movingly displays Franklin’s nobility.

As Higgins, the corrupt politician, Cross is scary good. We’ve seen such bullies before, like Boss Finley in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and, in real life, like Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cross uses his imposing stature and subtly shaded line readings to bring this formidable foe to life.

To Breyer falls a challenge, one which she generally meets with aplomb. Reed is good-as-gold, and her observations are often infused with proper rightmindedness. But Breyer never makes her comments predictable or cloying. We absolutely root for Reed as she tries to determine what to do next. (A note about blocking: I wish Breyer had come out from behind the office desk more often than she does for variety’s sake! And, in fact, the desk unfortunately dwarfs the actress.)

In her director’s note Davis says, “Have we really moved forward in society from where we were sixty years ago?” Oh, you will be asking yourself that question over and over, and you may not like the answer. But “Alabama Story” is one reason we go to the theater.


Alabama Story

WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Nov. 17
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: 518.462.1297, or albanycivictheater.org

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