Some of Chicago’s best actors will be conjuring the Deep South in northern Wisconsin this summer when they star in the Midwest premiere of Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story Aug. 17-Sept. 4 at Peninsula Players, one of the nation’s oldest resident summer theatres. In the Equity troupe’s 81st season, Carmen Roman will play a state librarian persecuted by Greg Vinkler’s bullying senator in the drama inspired by true events of the Civil Rights era. James Leaming will play narrator Garth Williams, the famed “Charlotte’s Web” illustrator whose new children’s picture book is targeted by segregationists who see hidden political meaning between its covers.
“Carmen and I have played quite a few sparring partners on stage over the years at the Players — we were Henry and Eleanor in The Lion in Winter, Gaev and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, Lady Alice and Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Kate and Jack in Broadway Bound, and more,” Peninsula Players artistic director Vinkler told me. In the 1959-set Alabama Story, his Sen. E.W. Higgins makes repeated attempts to shame and oust librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, who protects an innocuous children’s book called “The Rabbits’ Wedding.”
Leaming’s “very good at playing multiple characters,” Vinkler said. “The first time I saw him on stage he was doing that in Catch-22 at American Blues Theater, and that’s the reason I hired him the first time.”
Garth Williams wears many hats in Alabama Story, which is set in “the Deep South of the imagination.” Leaming is a co-founding member of American Blues Theater in Chicago, where his wife, Carmen Roman, is also an ensemble member. (I saw Roman play a fierce Paulina in sharp production of The Winter’s Tale at Missouri Rep, now Kansas City Rep, a few years back. If you want a strong actress to play a strong woman, you call steely Carmen Roman.)
The Alabama Story company in Door County, north of Green Bay, will also include Katherine Keberlein as Lily; Byron Glenn Willis as Joshua; and Harter Clingman as Thomas. Brendon Fox will direct. The production team includes William Collins (stage manager), Emil Boulos (lighting designer), Jack Magaw (set designer), Karin Kopischke (costume designer), Chris Kriz (sound designer) and Jim Lichon (props).
The acclaimed Alabama Story had world premiere by Pioneer Theatre Company in 2015 and will have four regional professional productions in 2016. It’s currently running to May 28 at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, FL, where the Herald Tribune called it “a touching and often inspiring look back at a true story in 1959 Alabama about efforts to remove a controversial children’s book that some believe promotes integration.”
Peninsula Players bills the drama’s sparring characters as “incredible opposites and incredible forces” representing “worlds at risk.” While the politician and librarian battle, “a parallel story of childhood friends, Joshua and Lily, a black man and a white woman reunited in adulthood, reflects the personal and political tensions swirling in Montgomery.” The play mixes tears, laughter and history to tell the story of people whose character is tested in times of great change.
Alabama Story was a nominee for the 2016 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a 2014 Finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Learn more about the play’s history here.
Director Brendon Fox has many regional credits. He’s also on faculty in the theatre department of Washington College in Chestertown, MD, where he recently adapted and directed The Eyre Affair, from the novel by Jasper Fforde.
Subscriptions and individual tickets for the 2016 season of Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, WI, are now on sale. The season also includes Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti; Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps; Agatha Christie’s The Hollow; and the musical The Full Monty by David Yazbek and Terrence McNally.
Leaming and Keberlein will also appear in The Hollow; Leaming, Keberlein, Clingman and Willis will appear in The Full Monty; and Vinkler will appear in Chapatti.