A Southern Welcome for the Bard

Alabama Shakespeare Festival brings old and new works to the stage

FEW individuals have changed the face of a city the way businessman Winton Blount changed the face of Montgomery, Ala.

Mr. Blount donated a $21.5-million performing arts complex to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, converting a summertime festival (which ran six weeks out of the year in a high school auditorium) into a year-round operation.

The festival is now the largest and only professional classical-repertory theater in the Southeast, housed in a magnificent building that encompasses two theaters: the Festival, which has a 750-seat capacity, and the Octagon, with 225-seats.

The building also houses production shops and administrative offices. The theater complex is located in a 250-acre park with English-style grounds and a lake, and nearby is the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, which contains the Blount Collection, a superb grouping of American paintings by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keeffe. In an area of the country not particularly known for its cultural pursuits, the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park is an oasis.

Venturing into new work

In a given repertory season, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, currently under the artistic direction of Kent Thompson, will generally produce three works by the Bard. The 1994 season, which runs from March to July, includes: ``The Tempest,'' ``Othello,'' and ``Henry V.'' Also in the lineup are Alan Ayckbourn's ``How the Other Half Loves,'' Moss Hart's ``Light Up the Sky,'' and Brian Friel's ``Dancing at Lughnasa.''

The theater also features new work. Last season, it produced two plays by Southern writers: Pearl Cleage's ``Flyin' West'' and Randy Hall's ``Grover.''

``Grover'' was the premiere production of the Southern Writers' Project, which the festival started several years ago to develop new plays by Southerners.

The play, which is set in Montgomery, tells the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and journalist Grover Hall Sr., who launched a series of editorials attacking the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

``Grover'' is an uneven affair, with the playwright stuffing too many ingredients into his tale: Grover's alcoholism; his wife Claudia's mental disorder; an incident involving an allegation of theft directed toward the son of the couple's black maid. Too little attention is paid to the central issues involving Grover's conflict with the Klan, a potentially fascinating subject.

Instead, there is much pseudo-psychology about the journalist unleashing the demon anger within him, enough alcohol-induced angst to rival Eugene O'Neill, and a mad scene involving Claudia that would be more at home in one of the Shakespeare productions. Still, the play has a fitful power, especially in its chillingly staged final confrontation between Grover and the Klan, and a forceful lead performance by Stuart Culpepper.

``Flyin' West,'' by Pearl Cleage, is set in a tiny, all-black town in Kansas in the last years of the 19th century. It presents three generations of black Southern women who have banded together after moving West to take advantage of the Homestead Act.

The youngest woman, Minnie (played by Cee-Cee Harshaw), has returned home with her husband Frank Charles (Robert Owens), a mulatto son of a slave-owner who aspires to his father's aristocratic heritage. The couple have recently been to Europe, where Frank was able to pass for a white man, but now he cannot hide from his mixed-race parentage.

Frank is clearly an abusive husband, and the women, with the help of a family friend (Cedric Young), conspire to solve the problem by what they perceive as their only solution - an act of violence chilling in its matter-of-factness and in the celebratory way it is presented in the play and received by the audience.

Its climax, which will no doubt have more resonance in the aftermath of the Lorena Bobbitt verdict, was defended by playwright Cleage in an audience discussion the following day (another valuable feature of the festival).

Uniformly fine acting

Following the performance of ``Flyin' West,'' the first Pioneer Awards were presented to four Alabama women for their achievements in civil rights. The recipients were: Mrs. Johnnie Carr, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr.; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space; Virginia Durr, an activist who, among many other things, posted bond for Rosa Parks after her arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and Rosa Parks herself.

Whatever the merits or flaws of both plays, and there is always a risk when presenting new work, there was no doubt that both were superb productions, lavishly staged and uniformly well acted. The production values at this theater are first class - both ``Grover'' and ``Flyin' West'' could transfer immediately to a New York theater and be well received.

It is also encouraging to find a city so supportive of its local theater. Even at the Sunday morning church service at the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King preached from 1954 to 1960, the pastor exhorted his flock to attend the production of ``Flyin' West.''

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is, at this point, the fifth- largest Shakespeare festival in the world, and attracts more than 250,000 visitors annually. As the State Theater of Alabama, it is a vibrant example of what can be achieved with enough government and private support. It should be an essential stop for any arts lover visiting the South.

* For more information, call: 800-841-4273.

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