Very few books were more popular in their day than author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Even though written by a woman in a time when women did not write and certainly did not concern themselves with political, economic, or cultural issues, this book sold more copies than the Bible. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” marshalled the anti-slavery movement nationwide. Inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which made it illegal to help or harbor runaway slaves, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was first released as a newspaper serial on June 5, 1851. The subtitle, “The Man That Was a Thing” said it all and served to raise public awareness and rally abolitionists everywhere. There is speculation that this book may have been one impetus for the American Civil War which began in 1860.
Playwright Ellen Geer adapted the tale and added music - but set the play 35 years later. The play begins in 1886, which coincided with the death of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband and her gradual decline to what might have been Alzheimer’s symptoms. Thus the famous book has become a tribute to Stowe’s memories and reflections.
Uncle Tom (Gerald C. Rivers) lives happily with his family on the Kentucky plantation where he was born; even though they are slaves, they have been blessed with a thoughtful and caring master. Tom has learned to read and uses this skill to offer Biblical messages to the other slaves. Disaster strikes when their owner hits hard times and must sell Tom and the young child of another slave in order to pay his mortgage and keep his property. The child and his mother flee to Canada searching for freedom, and Tom is taken away in chains by a slave trader.
But Tom’s luck seems to hold. While being transported to the Deep South for a slave sale, Tom rescues a little girl drowning in the Mississippi and again finds a home with a plantation master who treats his slaves well. Even though separated from his family, Tom manages to make a good life. Then tragedy again strikes when his master is killed in a tavern brawl. Despite promises that Tom would be freed after his master’s death, the widow sells Tom and the other plantation slaves. Misfortune finally targets Tom and two female slaves when they are bought by Simon Legree, a violent and vicious slave owner who mistreats all his slaves and brutally tortures Tom. Tom’s prophetic words linger even after his death: “I’ll be free when I die.”
Author and director Ellen Geer does a brilliant job of translating “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” into a moving and kaleidoscopic tale of slavery set in the natural, expansive Theatricum Botanicum amphitheater. The large and talented cast is clearly inspired to offer their best in this homage to Stowe’s vision. Costume designer Maggie Clapis obviously had her hands full in outfitting the many cast members in clothing appropriate to their time, race, and station; she has done a great job of fulfilling her artistic task. And it’s rousing and sometimes poignant to hear the many well-known songs that grew out of this era of pain. Perhaps the play is often melodramatic – possibly in keeping with Stowe’s literary style and the era’s sensibilities. Nonetheless, TOM powerfully brings to life a shameful time in American history.
TOM runs through October 2, 2016. Performances are on Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets range from $10 to $38.50. For information and reservations, call 310-455-3723 or go online at www.theatricum.com.