By presenting Randy Hill’s intelligent historical play about one newspaperman’s stand against the Ku Klux Klan, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival boldly confronts the racist ghosts of its own community. The solid new drama about Grover C. Hall (a distant relative of the playwright) has a particular resonance in Montgomery, but this is a strong enough play to merit further productions at other regional theaters.
In terms of structure, “Grover” is a fairly straightforward plod through the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Montgomery Journal. The liberal-thinking Grover (Stuart Culpepper) wrote a number of editorials in the late ’20s attacking the activities of the Klan and calling for anti-mask laws. Despite death threats and cross-burnings in his yard, Grover ultimately prevailed: He is credited with breaking the Klan’s power in the Deep South.
Drama’s main strength is its refusal to follow the usual melodramatic format of race-charged dramas or to romanticize its ambiguous hero. The Grover depicted is a hard-drinking, oft-depressed fellow who can be patronizing tohis black housekeeper (Elizabeth Omilami). Her son (Sam Gordon) has become a malcontent frustrated by the lack of opportunity for young blacks.
Culpepper’s depiction of the central character is more cheerfully theatrical than naturalistic, but the actor brings an ambiguous intensity to the drama that fits his enigmatic character. All of the supporting players are fine — especially newcomer Gordon, who is riveting as the housekeeper’s misunderstood son.
Peter Hackett’s generally solid production runs into trouble when the Klan appears in Grover’s backyard. Despite a flexible setting by Bob Schmidt, it’s hard to realistically stage large-scale violent confrontations in an intimate thrust theater.
But then it’s also remarkable that such nasty activities are being depicted at all in a theater attended by people barely one generation removed from all this tumult. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival deserves credit for nurturing a thoughtful, intelligent play that never runs away from the issues at the heart of the Old South.