A Librarian, a Senator and a Children’s Book
Alabama Story Opens August 17
at Peninsula Players
Fish Creek, WI. – Peninsula Players Theatre, America’s Oldest Professional Resident Summer Theatre and Door County’s theatrical icon, continues its 81st season August 17 through September 4 when it presents the Midwest première of Kenneth Jones’ engaging, “Alabama Story.” Inspired by actual events in 1959, “Alabama Story” centers on a fearless, no-nonsense librarian, a vocal segregationist senator and an innocent children’s book. In a parallel story, childhood friends Joshua and Lilly, a black man and white woman, reunite among the societal tensions of the times.
“Alabama Story” was a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and had its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The inspiration for “Alabama Story” came when playwright Jones’ read an article in The New York Times about the death of Emily Wheelock Reed, a librarian who stood her ground for the right to read during the onset of the civil rights movement. “Alabama Story” is a work of fiction based on these actual events in a time of civil unrest in our country.
In 1958, Garth Williams, best known for his illustrations of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Charlotte’s Web” published a children’s book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” This picture book featured the story of two rabbits, one white and one black, who live happily together in a forest. The rabbits decide to get married and all of the forest creatures attend the wedding and they live ‘happily ever after.”
In 1959, Reed was the Director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division at a time when civil discontent was rampant in the South. In 1954, just five years prior, the U.S. Supreme Court ended legal racial segregation in public schools and in 1955 Montgomery experienced citywide bus boycotts after the arrest of Rosa Parks. Reed was asked to remove “The Rabbits’ Wedding” from the shelves and she refused.
Jones read about Reed after her death was announced in The New York Times. He immediately became intrigued by the dynamics of these two opposing forces; Reed from the North and a Senator from the South. “All these opposites really attracted me,” Jones said in an interview with American Theatre Magazine. “She’s a woman, he’s a man. Young, old, black, white, insider, outsider, love and hate. That all weirdly appealed to me when I read this obituary.”
Jones did not want to write a documentary or political drama, rather he wanted to focus on lives and people behind the issues, thus the parallel story of Lilly and Joshua meeting outside the library after years of being apart.
“The play is about the freedom of expression and the freedom to read and censorship,” Jones said in a video interview with Utah Theatre Bloggers. “We are dealing with these issues all over the world now. The play isn’t meant to be a message play. I wrote it in big colorful broad strokes; a play that includes romance, comedy, a sense of courtroom thriller and a memory play. I wanted to draw on all of these forms to create this play and people can go home with different messages and different ideas.”
Reed was cited for her work in Alabama by the American Library Association and received the Scroll of Honor from the Freedom to Read Foundation. The conversations and other characters in the play are fictional composites of actual people involved in the conflict.
Brendon Fox, who directed the dynamic “Opus” for Peninsula Players, charts the drama and wit Jones crafted. Fox’s directing credits include “Shipwrecked!” at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, “Much Ado About Nothing” with Dana Delany at Old Globe Theatre” and “As You Like It” for Weston Playhouse. Fox recently directed his stage adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s novel, “The Eyre Affair.”
“All of the characters (in “Alabama Story”) are dealing with issues of censorship and suppression in some way,” Fox said. “Some characters are confronting it on the political level – who decides what books are in our libraries, and which are not allowed. Some characters are censoring themselves, because there are things in their past that are too painful to confront.”
The cast under Fox’s direction include a mix of Peninsula Players veterans and a newcomer to the theater this season. The cast of “Alabama Story” includes Harter Clingman (“The Full Monty,” “Saloon”); James Leaming (“The Full Monty,” “The Foreigner,” “Is He Dead?”); Katherine Keberline (“The Full Monty,” “The Hollow,” “Dial M for Murder”); Carmen Roman (“Master Class,” “Rumors,” “Red Herring,” “A Little Night Music”); Greg Vinkler (“Opus,” “Heroes,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Chapatti”); and Byron Glenn Willis (“The Full Monty”).
Roman is cast as the spirited Reed and Vinkler as the disarming, yet vocal Senator E.W. Higgins. Roman and Vinkler are Peninsula Players veterans who have sparred verbally on the stage as Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry in “The Lion in Winter;” as brother and sister in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo;” as a married couple in “Broadway Bound” and a courting couple in the late-in-life romance, “Be My Baby.”
Roman recently played opposite Hal Linden in “Moon Over Buffalo” at The New Theater in Kansas City. This winter she toured “Botanic Garden” by Todd Logan. Her off-Broadway credits include “Love Sex and Death in the Amazon” and recently shot an episode of “Chicago PD” and her recurring characters include Connie Mrozek on “Betrayal” and Dr. Gabriella Reyes on the “Boss.”
Vinkler is the Peninsula Players Artistic Director and has performed extensively in Chicago, appearing at Chicago Shakespeare (35 productions), Goodman, Steppenwolf, Shubert, Court, Writers, Northlight, Marriott Lincolnshire and Victory Gardens theaters, and has received three Joseph Jefferson Awards (nominated 12 times), two Artisan Awards and an After Dark Award. He appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning revival of “West Side Story” and also at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Barbican Theatre in London, Vienna’s English Theatre and Singapore Rep.
Clingman is cast as Reed’s concerned assistant, Thomas; Leaming as the narrator and author Garth Williams; Keberline as the genteel and mannerly Lilly and Willis as Joshua, her childhood friend who relocated to the North.
Clingman recently played Alf in the national tour of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Leaming has performed Shakespeare, Shaw and a one-man-show “This Wonderful Life” around the country. Keberline recently appeared in “American Beauty Shop” at Chicago Dramatists and Willis
Chicago stage credits include “Ragtime” with Light Opera Works and “The Jackie Wilson Story” with Black Ensemble Theatre.
The creative team includes regional and award-winning designers including scenic designer Jack Magaw (“Outside Mullingar,” “Sunday in the Park with George”); lighting designer Emil Boulos (“The Hollow,” “And Then There Were None,” “Lend Me a Tenor”); costume designer Kärin Simonson Kopischke (“Chicago,” “Outside Mullingar,” “Sunday in the Park with George,”); sound designer Chris Kriz (“Lend Me A Tenor” “) and properties designer Pauline Olesky.
“Alabama Story” is sponsored by Main Street Market.
Peninsula Players is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers as well a member of the United Scenic Artists.
Peninsula Players has been entertaining audiences with performances since July 25, 1935 when the theater opened behind the Bonnie Brook Motel in Fish Creek with Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.” The company was founded by a brother and sister team, Caroline and Richard Fisher, who dreamt of an artistic utopia in the north woods where actors, designers and technicians could focus on their craft while being surrounded by nature in a contemplative setting. Peninsula Players moved to the theater’s present location along the shores of Green Bay in 1937.
Prior to performances, patrons picnic and relax on the grounds while watching the setting sun over the waters of Green Bay from the cedar-lined shore and enjoy the ambience of the Beer Garden and other gardens.
The Fisher’s dream lives on. Professional actors, directors and designers work side-by-side with college interns, live on the Players 16-acre campus and bring audiences a variety of works including Broadway-quality dramas, mysteries, comedies and musicals.
Kenneth Jones’ “Alabama Story” performs Tuesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; except Sunday, September 4 at 4 p.m. Individual ticket prices range from $37 to $43 with discounts for groups of 15 or more. There are no performances on Mondays. A pre-show seminar will be held Wednesday, August 24, with Door Library Director Becca Berger as she discusses the history of censorship and banned books. A post-show discussion with the cast and creative team will be held Friday, August 19. For more information or to reserve tickets phone the Peninsula Players Box Office at (920) 868-3287 or visit its website at www.peninsulaplayers.com.