In-the-crosshairs librarian Emily Wheelock Reed will be proclaimed unflappable. But she has a secret: In private, she flaps. In a scene in the Washington Stage Guild production of Kenneth Jones’s “Alabama Story,” the courteous but determined Reed forbids a powerful segregationist politician to smoke in her office. Minutes later, after sending him on his way, she sinks down in her desk chair, clearly shaken. In a fluid motion, she pulls a cigarette from a drawer and lights it.
As played by Julie-Ann Elliott, the poised yet steely Reed is the appealing, instinctive heart of “Alabama Story,” a thematically resonant 2015 drama that often feels too tidily constructed. Directed here by Kasi Campbell, the play recalls a real historical incident: In 1959, an uproar exploded in Alabama over “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a children’s book about the marriage of a black bunny and a white bunny. Segregationists denounced the tale, by the esteemed illustrator Garth Williams, as propaganda aimed at encouraging racial integration. The ensuing outcry included political attacks on Reed, a high-level state librarian.
Despite the decades since the incident, Jones’s play feels timely, resonating with this era’s racial tensions, the “she persisted” meme and continuing controversy over the Old South’s legacy (think, Confederate monuments), for instance. Then there’s the fact — odd or not — that this drama featuring “The Rabbits’ Wedding” is opening in Washington while another children’s book touching on rabbit nuptials — John Oliver’s Pence-spoofing fable about gay bunnies — is making national headlines.
At its best, the topicality of “Alabama Story” infuses a theatrical moment that feels spontaneous yet intriguingly layered. One of the most gripping scenes conjures a tense budget meeting, in which a state senator, E.W. Higgins (Steven Carpenter), bombards Reed with politically charged questions. The librarian remains polite, but you can see her increasingly bristle beneath the veneer. (Jingwei Dai and Kirk Kristlibas designed the set, dominated by white columns evoking Alabama government buildings.)
At other points, though, the play’s conflict feels more storyboarded, and not just in its framing devices (which include Nigel Reed’s portrayal of an amiable Williams). A narrative about two childhood friends, one white and one black (Jenny Donovan and Gerrad Alex Taylor), who find themselves alienated as adults, comes across as a well-intentioned authorial construct, designed to show the personal toll exacted by Higgins-style segregationist passions. A hint of staginess in the acting — Donovan and Christopher Herring, who plays a library assistant, are frequent culprits — often adds to the sense of artifice.
The play admittedly contains heartwarming moments, especially near the end. And with its loving call-outs to books — even the firebrand Higgins treasures “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” — “Alabama Story” is on one level a paean to reading. You don’t need to be a librarian to appreciate that.
Alabama Story, by Kenneth Jones. Directed by Kasi Campbell; assistant director, Carl Randolph; costumes, Stacey Thomann Hamilton; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Frank DiSalvo Jr. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $50-$60. Through April 15 at the Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org.