Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Alabama Story
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Review by Richard T. Green

Jeanne Paulsen, Carl Howell, Carl Palmer,
and Larry Paulsen

Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Kenneth Jones' 2015 fact-based drama, Alabama Story, is a worthy successor to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of To Kill A Mockingbird, nearly two years ago. But this time, Atticus Finch is a woman: real-life librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, played with great wisdom and comic intensity by Jeanne Paulsen under the expert direction of Paul Mason Barnes. And the man on trial (so to speak) is someone you're probably already familiar with: children's illustrator and author Garth Williams, played by the whimsical Larry Paulsen (husband of Jeanne). Garth Williams drew the art for both "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little," but became famous for writing his own children's book, "The Rabbits' Wedding," about a white bunny who marries a black bunny. And when that slender volume from 1958 came to Alabama, an opportunistic state senator was ready to grab the seeming parable of interracial marriage by its great big floppy ears.

The author of "The Rabbits' Wedding" doesn't seem to have ever visited Alabama, though Williams appears on stage throughout, in narrative moments and playing incidental characters. But if he did visit this version of the state capitol in Montgomery, he might have been slightly disappointed. The characters in Mr. Jones' script are not as colorful as those in Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird": there are no crazy neighbors, nor any mysterious Boo Radley. Instead, these fact-based Southerners (60 years ago) seem resigned to a long, painful march for everyone, toward civil rights. It's a little short on magic, but strong in resolve.

Really, I liked it a lot. And I suppose every white Southerner in the show is revealed to have at least a dash of Boo Radley in him or her: awkward, even humiliated, as each transitions into a world they don't quite understand. But, in Alabama Story, the strange psychological poetry of Southern fiction is supplanted by a kind of acerbic Northern knowing-enough, at least, to make a Missourian feel progressive by comparison. The two-hour and thirty minute drama rewards us for coming as far as we finally have: its tone is flatteringly egalitarian, and celebrates learning and thinking and rationality. Against these, there can be no law. But nicotine-stained Senator E. W. Higgins (played with domineering charm and squinty eyes by actor Carl Palmer) might be able to stave off some of that learning and thinking and rationality, through his state's budget hearings over the library system run by Ms. Reed. He finds her strangely independent, being educated north of the Mason-Dixon line.

It's a very nice clash of personalities, with the ultra-crisp Ms. Paulsen (Tony nominated for her role in The Kentucky Cycle) up against Mr. Palmer's folksy senator from Demopolis (which was also the setting of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes). The senator's favorite book is "Tom Sawyer," and favorite movie is Song of the South. So there's a lot of Southern culture, by association. And in a roundabout way, that whets our appetite for a fictional human love story that mimics "The Rabbits' Wedding."

That develops concurrently, outside the public buildings, on the edge of Montgomery's Oak Park, which (ironically) has been closed to discourage public integration. Corey Allen is adorable there as Joshua, the son of a black maid from Demopolis; and beautiful Anna O'Donoghue plays Lily, the trapped-but-elegant white girl who grew up on that same cotton plantation. Their relationship, harkening back to a shared childhood, is funny and poignant and even frightening. Rounding out the cast in the "present" of 1959, Carl Howell does very nicely as Ms. Reed's library assistant, in a show that's rich in psychological intent.

The story also flourishes thanks to a grand set, and lighting effects, and a veritable warehouse of period costumes, all of which are impeccable.

Alabama Story, through January 27, 2019, on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton theater building, 110 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit

The Players, in speaking order:
Garth Williams: Larry Paulsen
Lily Whitfield: Anna O'Donoghue
Joshua Moore: Corey Allen
Senator Higgins: Carl Palmer
Emily Wheelock Reed: Jeanne Paulsen
Thomas Franklin: Carl Howell

Production Artists:
Director: Paul Mason Barnes
Scenic Designer: William Bloodgood
Costume Designer: Dorothy Marshall Englis
Lighting Designer: Kenton Yeager
Sound Designer/Composer: Barry G. Funderburg
Casting Director: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.
Stage Manager: Tony Dearing
Assistant Stage Manager: Dora Jane Trenbeath

Additional Production Artists:
Production Assistant: Nina Mead
Dramaturg: Andrew Carlson
Dialect Coach: Nancy Bell
Assistant Lighting Designers: Wyatt Mailloux, Alice Trent
Assistant Costume Designer: Kayla Page