Uncle Tom's Cabin
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 1, 2010
Go see Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The great service that Metropolitan Playhouse has done in presenting this misunderstood, little-seen, generally reviled play is not simply to provide a strong evening of enlightening entertainment to its audience (though they have indeed done that)—no, they've given us an opportunity to witness something of a revelation. Uncle Tom's Cabin brings the American past to life in a visceral and profound way that I've seldom seen before; this piece is part of our heritage and our collective DNA, the way that some of Shakespeare's best plays are for the Brits.
The misconceptions that I know I had about this play are laid to rest very quickly. First, I discovered that Uncle Tom's Cabin, unlike almost any other American play written about the same time (1852), holds up quite well; sure, it's melodramatic and sure it's couched in the theatrical conventions of its day, but the characters possess a ring of psychological truth (even Simon Legree gets a speech where he explains how he got so nasty). As staged here with commendable forthrightness by Alex Roe, the piece never drags and never feels like a chore to sit through: we actually find ourselves caring about these people and what's going to happen them.
And second, if you're expecting to have to make a whole bunch of excuses for how offensive this play is, well... it doesn't need any. At least in George L. Aiken's version, this is resolutely abolitionist agitprop, first and foremost: like Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, this play has a clear social/moral purpose, and even if the African American characters are treated somewhat patronizingly and even if the "N" word pops up with distressing frequency, this is a 150-year-old play to be proud of rather than to apologize for. (This is probably not the case with the various bowdlerized versions that were so popular in the U.S. for 75 years or so after the Civil War, like the one in which vaudeville stars The Duncan Sisters played Topsy and Eva as stock stereotypes.)
It helps significantly that Roe and his cast are playing the famous characters as if they were real, three-dimensional people. The great performances in this production—Alex Marshall-Brown's Topsy, George Lee Miles's Uncle Tom, Helen Highfield's Eva, Lisa Riegel's Ophelia, and Rick Delaney's St. Clare—offer us rich, human, convincing characters. Marshall-Brown's Topsy is particularly thrilling: she shows us that this "wickedest critter" is a scared child who has developed a small but effective set of defenses to cope with a horrifying existence (and the script helps us understand just how horrifying: we learn that Topsy was taken from her parents as a babe and raised by a speculator, then sold to various callous owners; indeed the whole idea that people can be property is a recurring and very disturbing theme of this play). Highfield and Miles humanize their famous roles, keeping them clear of being cloying or stiflingly noble.
Now, I've written this assuming you know the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is wrong-headed because I didn't. It begins in Kentucky, where slaves Eliza and George (married but serving different masters) find they are about to be separated because George has been sold. He determines to escape to Canada and freedom, and when Eliza learns that their baby son is to be sold as well, she follows him. They're abetted in their cause by a kind-hearted stranger named Phineas and some friendly Quakers. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom (a slave on the same plantation as Eliza) is sold to a Louisiana planter named St. Clare. St. Clare treats his slaves well, if a little off-handedly. He is devoted to his saintly daughter Eva, who immediately takes to the pious Uncle Tom. St. Clare's cousin Ophelia, a Yankee from Vermont, is visiting, and he presents her with Topsy, a seemingly incorrigible girl whom Ophelia views first as a cross to bear, then as a project to improve, and finally as a daughter.
In Act Three, Uncle Tom is sold again, to the vicious planter Simon Legree. (Legree does not chase Eliza across the ice, as The King and I suggests; but he does work hard to break poor old Uncle Tom. And Uncle Tom is not an "Uncle Tom" at all: he bravely and nobly resists his evil master's will throughout.) It's a strong, involving story, and an important one for Americans to understand. Aiken is unstinting in portraying slavery as an evil and the slaves' lives as being full of hardship and indignity. A particularly telling scene comes when St. Clare announces that he will free Uncle Tom. When Tom commences an unexpectedly joyful dance of celebration, St. Clare is surprised. Hasn't Tom been treated well, he asks? Tom agrees that he has, but he says that he'd rather be wearing rags if they were rags he owned himself.
Roe has provided a spare, simple design for this production, while Sidney Fortner has designed functional period garments for the actors to wear (most play many roles, with the costumes hanging on racks on either side of the stage). Christopher Weston's lighting is quite effective, as is Scott Barrow's fight choreography.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a significant achievement for Metropolitan Playhouse, and it's a play that I cannot commend to you strongly enough. I can only recall one other time in the theatre when the enormity of the evil of slavery was conveyed as clearly as it is in this production. It's important for Americans to experience that feeling.