When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” landed in theaters in the early 1850s, it
quickly became ubiquitous. “One of the first things it did,” wrote Henry James,
it repeatedly, was “to flutter down on every stage, literally
without exception, in America and Europe.”
Is it odd or inevitable that this central national text —
dealing as it does with our primal topics of slavery and race — has
practically disappeared as drama?
Tastes change, of course, and so did Uncle Tom. The
idealized, Christlike character in Harriet
Stowe’s novel metamorphosed into something embarrassing: an
emblem of subservience and complicity.
How appropriate then that in its season dedicated to
exploring stereotypes, the Metropolitan Playhouse is staging George L.
Aiken’s version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” first presented in 1852.
Aiken’s adaptation stresses action over psychology, and Alex Roe, the
company’s artistic director, has directed this absorbing production
with an unobtrusive minimalism, keeping the story front and center.
“Uncle Tom” unfolds with all the familiarity and strangeness
of a folk tale. On a stark stage — the only decoration is a sketch of a
cabin, white on a dark ground — with just a few benches and a few
simple props, a cast of 10 (almost all doubling or tripling roles)
enacts Stowe’s crowded story.
Here are the runaway slaves George (Rafael Jordan) and Eliza
(Marcie Henderson); Uncle Tom (George Lee Miles) and the saintly little
Eva (Helen Highfield); the sly wild child Topsy (Alex Marshall-Brown,
in the show’s most complex performance) and the villainous overlord
Simon Legree (Dan Snow). And here are corn-pone bits (some added by
Aiken) and tragic moments and melodrama, both ham fisted and revealing.
The acting isn’t uniformly good, or even uniform, but mostly
that doesn’t matter. (The exception is a long speech by Legree in the
third act that drags badly, undercutting the play’s momentum.) And if
Mr. Roe’s modern staging fails to produce big 19th-century tears, his
production rarely loses its hold on the audience. That’s because, like
any good close reader, he values his text.
And “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is full of indelible American scenes:
Eliza’s escape across the river on ice floes (here she moves from bench
to bench, as the other actors place them in front of her); the death of
little Eva; Legree’s brutal whipping of Uncle Tom.
Before this production “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was last seen in
New York in 1997 at the Mint Theater. (The Drama Dept.
did a wonderful deconstructed version that same year.) During
intermission the friend I brought wondered why the play wasn’t being
produced at Lincoln Center or the Public
Theater or the Roundabout. He’s right. It shouldn’t be a stranger
on our stages.