ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info and tickets at atistage.org, or thecenterpresents.org.