Review: Timely ‘Alabama Story’ doesn’t quite reach heights

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Thomas (Jeremy Ryan) consults with his mentor Emily (Karen DeHart) in City Lights Theater Company’s production of “Alabama Story” in Downtown San Jose through Feb. 18th. (Photo by Taylor Sanders)

The term “fake news” is nothing new. It is easy to label something as fake. What is fake to someone is real to another. So another way of saying something is fake news depends on one thing – the way we feel about the group that is actually disseminating the news.

In the City Lights production of “Alabama Story,” that fake news comes courtesy of the Montgomery Home News. In this newspaper, which immediately conjures up parallels with Breitbart, a book where two rabbits fall in love and get married is the new battleground for social justice warriors versus the people that hate them. One rabbit is white, the other is black. One group takes this as a sign of forced brainwashing and acceptance that pushes back on segregation, calling it a strive for “negro supremacy.” Yet the author of the book states a more pragmatic reason – the book was published in black and white.

While the production does some good things with nice acting performances and a clean staging by director Lisa Mallette, the script by Kenneth Jones is quite unsatisfying. It is not that the story isn’t critical or timely – that it is. It is more that these characters do not seem to be locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the future of Alabama, or in a metaphoric sense, America.

Put another way, the stakes for some reason seem awfully low.

In 1959, the librarian Emily Reed (Karen DeHart) is dutiful and passionate, a woman who has spent her life in the noblest of causes – getting people to read. She is also one that clearly doesn’t understand all the hullabaloo about this one book, a book that’s been in the library for a while now. It’s a book now under siege by the right-wing activists of time.

It makes sense – I mean, there are very few ideas more liberal than a library. And books which are under threat are immediately moved from general circulation section to reserved – that is, they don’t leave the library and are there for anyone to access. This is the indignation of Emily. She is the protector of knowledge, a critical employee in the state’s tiers of enlightenment.

The main battle she fights is between Senator Higgins (Erick Gandolfi), a man who leads the charge to shut this book down. He is one who conjures up images of George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who came into power a few years later. Higgins tasks himself with saving the future, bringing about dominant power as a member of the state’s library finance committee. Higgins is also keenly aware of how to bring up an issue to attack, now focusing condescendingly on Emily’s non-Alabama roots. In a delightful scene, this moment is brought up by her loyal assistant Thomas (Jeremy Ryan), as he teaches Emily the proper way to say “Montgomery.”

Additionally, there is another story line involving two childhood friends Joshua (Bezachin Jafir) and Lily (Maria Marquis). They reminisce and long for the days of their youth, before they were made aware of their differences. Lemonade with a special syrup and stories of Uncle Remus are sweet, but when things become a bit more serious, the fissure between them grows.

The problem with this show is not the performances. Marquis is an effective southern belle, with some strong dialect work, and DeHart performs nicely as an understated force who must battle with minimal agency. Adding a bit more to the story is actor Steve Lambert, who comes in and out of scenes as multiple characters to provide context. In addition, the technical aspects are strong. George Psarras always provides an effective soundscape. Although Ron Gasparinetti’s set feels a bit too big, which hacks into the play’s intimacy with only a six-person cast, his work is always solid. That’s no different here. Even more nice dramaturgical touches are brought forth by the costumes of Anna Chase.

The issue has more to do with the journey of the show. The resolution of the story never seems threatened. And a show that can use a nice chopping of about 20 minutes or so takes a strange victory lap with its epilogue. It’s hollow, unsatisfying and clunky, maybe because throughout the piece, the denouement never feels in doubt.

The play advocates for the power of a story, and reflects the way we process stories based on where we are in our lives when we discover their power. And while “Alabama Story” is important, it is just not enough to grip the way it should.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Lights Theater Company presents “Alabama Story”
Written by Kenneth Jones
Directed by Lisa Mallette
The Word: A clunky play which has plenty that is timely, yet never reaches the heights it strives for.
Stars: 3 out of 5
City Lights Theater
529 S. Second Street
San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $19 – $44
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

 

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