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Potomac Stages

Uncle Tom's Cabin

This remarkable production is an important theatrical event as well as a cultural "must see." That the pre-civil war original from which this production springs was historically significant with an impact on both political history and a century and a half of race relations and racial stereotypes is well known. What the American Century Theater has accomplished here is to reveal the compellingly dramatic personal stories that lie beneath the historical importance of the work and they do so with an exceptionally satisfying theatricality that makes watching the show not a history lesson but a fascinating dramatic experience.

Storyline: A decade before the start of the Civil War, a plantation owner has to sell some of his slaves to avoid foreclosure on his mortgage and the loss of everything. Among the people he has to sell are a mature man with a strong set of Christian beliefs who would accept terrible, even fatal punishment rather than violate his values, and the child of a young married woman who would flee with her child rather than accept her fate. Her flight from captivity and effort to reach freedom brings a wide range of characters of both races into the spotlight where their strengths and weaknesses are revealed.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin began as a novel which was a "best seller" before that term had been invented. Actor/playwright George Akin turned Mrs. Stowe’s novel into a play which became even more of a phenomenon before, during and after the Civil War. His version was as rich in melodrama as Stowe’s novel had been rich in righteous anti-slavery commitment. Many of the stereotypes now attributed to Stowe’s novel actually come from Akin’s dramatization. But, wherever they come from, and whatever implication they carry today, the concepts of Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, Topsy, and the image of Eliza escaping across a frozen river are cultural icons. In a new adaptation of Akin’s play, Tom Fuller and Jack Marshall have stripped the material of the barnacles of a century and a half, burnished the pure drama of the story and streamlined the storytelling to fit today’s audience’s expectation for an evening of theater. It works spectacularly.

The genius of Mrs. Stowe’s original concept was to bring the horrors of slavery to vivid life, showing the pain and suffering to both body and soul of both owned and owner in a system that flourished in her day and which deposited such corrosive residues in the American society that a century and a half later the pain continues. For today’s audiences, the intellectual concept of a slave market, or of one person being free to beat another to death because he "owns" him, or of the emotional wrench of parent and child or man and wife pulled apart, seems distant and remote. The genius of this production, directed by Jack Marshall and Ed Bishop, is to bring those horrors back into focus, making a modern audience face and feel and understand them. There are painful moments in this play but they are honest and compelling moments which is the stuff of theatrical drama.

Among the changes they made was to have Harriet Beecher Stowe narrate the play, explaining why she wrote what she did. Some of the words she speaks seem like they were written sometime after the terrorist attacks of one year ago. But they were actually taken directly from her novel written in 1850. Another significant change, one that makes it clear that we aren’t watching a mere recreation of a pre-civil war production, is that the blacks are portrayed by blacks and the whites by whites. Here there is none of the blackface makeup that made the story seem safely fictional for early audiences. Here Michael Sainte-Andress brings a mellifluous voice and an imposing presence to Uncle Tom, Linda Terry creates a Topsy that is almost a force of nature and Ray Felton strides across the stage with a John Wayne swagger of evil intent as Simon Legree. But most importantly, Jack Baker brings all her righteous passion to the narration as Harriet Beecher Stowe. They and their colleagues create a memorable evening of theater that is also a timely and valuable lesson in human relations.

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City Paper

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin The American Century Theater's mounting of the 1850s abolitionist saga puts the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (Jack Baker, who moves gracefully in and out of the four characters she plays), onstage to narrate the story. The company used George Aiken's adaptation of Stowe's novel as a starting point, but stripped it of its more melodramatic and creakily humorous aspects; directors Jack Marshall and Ed Bishop, aided by an accomplished technical crew, bring this period piece to life. And a consistently strong ensemble makes even the most parody-worthy characters into real people. Ray Felton's Simon Legree, a black-leather-clad, cannonball-voiced brute, never slips into cartoon villainy. If the saccharinely saintly Little Eva is the script's least plausible character, Alexandria Lundelius does a fine job of making her as real a little girl as possible. But it's Uncle Tom, whose very name has become synonymous with craven capitulation, who is most redeemed by this production. Michael Sainte-Andress imbues Tom with humanity through his expressive face, easy conversational style, and unflinching physicality. Joe Cronin's rustic Phineas Fletcher brings some humor to this moral drama, but there is little easy entertainment otherwise: The slave auction--with Legree standing among the audience--is harrowing, and the writhing, gasping death scenes ring true. Hardest of all to watch is Linda Terry's performance as the abused slave girl Topsy: a toothy, screeching, pop-eyed grotesque who might have sprung from a pickaninny caricature. As the prim Yankee Ophelia (Signe Allen Linscott), who mouths an aversion to slavery but ultimately reveals an aversion to slaves, recoils from her, so do we--and that's one of the many ways the company makes what could be a baggage-ridden relic into a story that is gripping, thought-provoking, and even timeless. (PMW)

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Digital City

Anger, admiration, sadness and hope are just a few of the emotions The American Century Theater (TACT) elicits during its performance of the powerful 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel depicting the ugly underbelly of slavery became a play in 1852. Her book, and George Aiken's stage version of the story, helped forge public opposition to slavery. In its revised script, TACT eliminates some of the stage version's melodrama and adds the character of Stowe to inject more of the book's narrative.

Not a play that treads lightly, this production of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' generates raw emotion. There are gun battles and knife fights, a race across an ice-filled river, scenes of physical abuse and a cruel slave auction. Heartbreaking moments include Prue's description of her baby starving to death because her owner refused to provide the child milk, and Tom's discovery that his master was mortally wounded before fulfilling his promise to set him free -- and how Tom sat and prayed with the dying man.

The three-hour production (including a 15-minute intermission) does not drag. Nor does it perpetuate the condescending stereotype of Uncle Tom, instead depicting him more as Stowe intended -- strong and faithful. Artistic Director Jack Marshall notes in the playbill that Tom "is not at all the character who warrants the ugly implications that now attach to his name. It is high time America renewed its acquaintance with him…"

This is TACT's first production in the newly renovated Theatre II at Gunston Art Center. The space now includes a lobby area, an enclosed control booth and comfortable seating for about 100. -- Cheryl Kenny

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