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.

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

IRT presents sweet ‘Raisin’

By John Lyle Belden

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”
— From “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

It is the end of the 1950s, and postwar prosperity hasn’t quite reached the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. But for the Younger family, a windfall in the form of a life insurance check – a sad compensation for dreams deferred – brings hope of better times, better things. And every member of the family has ideas for how to invest or spend that money.

This sets up the plot of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama, “Raisin in the Sun,” on stage through Feb. 3 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The IRT’s high professional standards are reflected throughout this production, including director Timothy Douglas and his cast.

Chike Johnson is solid as Walter Lee Younger, who struggles with his need and expectation to be the man of the house. But it’s hard to stay a proud black man when your only way to make money is to drive white men around the city, at their beck and call. His frustration makes communication difficult with wife Ruth (Dorcas Sowunmi), who feels the strain of working as a cleaning woman on top of starting an unplanned pregnancy. She is also wary of Walter’s dreams of business schemes he works up with his drinking buddies. The latest, for which he wants the insurance money, is to start a liquor store.

But matriarch, and widow whose name is on the check, Lena Younger (played with sweet strength by Kim Staunton), doesn’t want her Christian witness tainted by financing such a business. She would rather see the money go towards putting daughter Beneatha (Stori Ayers) through medical school, as well as a down payment on a house for the whole family, especially Walter’s son (and Lena’s grandson) Travis (Lex Lumpkin).

Meanwhile, Beneatha’s college studies are opening her to the swiftly changing world of the era, and the overtures of two very different suitors. George (Jordan Bellow) is from a wealthy family, and sees keeping status as a black man of means through a rather conservative lens. But through Joseph (Elisha Lawson), a Nigerian student, Beneatha sees Africa and becomes fascinated with their ancestral culture. Ayers takes on her interesting and complex character with gusto, adding to the play’s sometimes dark humor. And she provides a great model for costumer Kara Harmon’s designs.

Supporting characters are played by D. Alexander, Dameon Cooper, and Paul Tavianini as the lone white role – a man with a rather interesting offer when the Youngers seek to move into an all-white neighborhood.

The struggle of people of color in America is an ever-present backdrop, even before the family comes face to face with thinly-veneered bigotry. We would like to argue that it’s a different country today – and to a fair degree, it is – but the attitudes in this drama do feel too familiar. And consider that Travis would be in his 60s today; this is not ancient history.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s stage emphasizes the oppressively crowded feel of the setting with stacks of old furniture for walls, a decaying ceiling overhead, and an endless maze of balconies and stairs surrounding the Youngers’ one-bedroom apartment, which doesn’t even have its own bathroom.

In all, IRT provides an excellent opportunity to revisit or discover this brilliant work. Don’t defer your chance to experience it. Performances are on the main stage at 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.