Poisonous roots

Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Harriet Beecher Stowe
Dramatized by George Aiken
Directed by Charles Dumas
The Mint Theater Company
311 W. 43rd St. (315-9434)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 28)
Review by Dudley Stone

"So this is the little lady who started this big war," President Lincoln is reported to have said on meeting the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And indeed most histories include her book, and even more the plays that sprang from it, as one of several causes of the Civil War. The latter brought to the public -- particularly those who had not read the novel - the evils of slavery and received enormous attention. George Aiken's dramatization played in New York City in 1853 for a year, with three perfomances a day. Twenty different plays spawned by the novel played in London, Paris and many of the world's great cities in the mid-1850s.

The Mint Theater's Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank, produced the play "to reclaim Tom's good name"; "Uncle Tom" now being a demeaning stereotype and a very derisive epithet used by thousands who probably never read the novel. In this, Mr. Bank succeeded, for the play shows Tom as in fact a strong and brave man who was whipped to death for failing to reveal the whereabouts of the runaway slaves.

Director Charles Dumas was faced with a considerable challenge in attempting to resurrect this 155-year-old melodrama. What's a director to do with a play that alternates death scenes and broad burlesque turns with winks and asides to the audience and lines like "I'm hit, the game's up." Dumas could hardly parody the old-fashioned play, given its serious subject. So he ended up with a fast-moving potpourri that, despite its faults, reverberated days after the show was over. That's important.

A rather uneven 20-member cast did its best with the stereotyped characters and the fustian dialogue, but the cinematic succession of 20 or more scenes made it difficult for the audience to be moved. Some of the scenes, notably Simon Legree's, went on much too long; some pruning would have been beneficial. Nevertheless, the short slave auction scene still sickens, and since few plays, and fewer film and television scripts, deal with this huge blot on the nation's history, congratulations to Mr. Bank on his choice. It is necessary to remember.

As Topsy, Rene Alberta did a fine job as she responded to the tutelage of Ms. Ophelia, the Vermont spinster, played with considerable skill by Karen Lynn Gorney. Thomas Gilpin did good work as Shelby, Wilson, and an amusing Deacon. Sandra P. Grant was an assured Eliza, George Spaventa a strong and malevolent Legree. Roth Corney was a lovely and sweet little Eva, but Carl Palmer's understated father, St. Clare, seemed out of step with the broader playing of the other performers. As Uncle Tom, Bo Rucker did show Tom's nobility, strength and character, but he was far too young, fit, and strong (graying his hair would have helped). John L. Damon (Haley) and Christopher Newman (Phineas/Mann) gave energetic and amusing performances. Also featuring Clark Jackson, Peter William Dunn, Lynne Workinger, Tom Gray, Gary Mink, Alexandre Dumas, Kim Renee Anderson, Carla Hargrove, Richard Walters, and Mikheil Yohannes.

The set, by Charles Kirby, was appropriate and quite imaginative; lighting, by Mark Simpson, was quite good; and costumes, by John Khristiansen, were apt. Sound design was uncredited, but most of the accompanying music, sounding like Chopin, seemed a strange choice.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 1
Acting 1
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting 2/Sound 1