The year is 1886, the Civil War is over, slaves are free and everything is all right. That’s wishful thinking, alas, which only incites crusading abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to bristle, “It is not all right! No matter what date it is!”
That, in a nutshell, is the raison d’être of “Tom,” Ellen Geer’s new adaptation of Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.
“Tom” isn’t the kind of bold re-envisioning we saw in “Lear,” the 2014 gender-switched take on “King Lear” by Ellen Geer, artistic director of the venue named after her father. The principal innovation of “Tom” is its incorporation of Stowe (Melora Marshall) as a character. Elderly but still impassioned, Marshall’s feisty Stowe narrates and presides over a mostly by-the-book presentation of her anti-slavery classic.
Geer’s staging brings visceral intensity to the horrors of that shameful chapter in our nation’s history, as we watch human beings torn from their families, sold at auction, tortured and compelled to perform minstrel songs for the amusement of their masters.
With depth and nuance, Gerald C. Rivers reclaims the title role from its more contemporary pejorative associations. Rather than a symbol of timid subservience, his Uncle Tom is a figure of Christ-like faith and sacrifice who willingly takes on the suffering that would otherwise befall others.
Exploring the historical complexities of slavery from different perspectives, the sprawling narrative sports ample stellar turns among the 30-plus cast members. (Earnestine Phillips, Thad Geer, Jasmine Gatewood, Mark Lewis, Durant Fowler and Tim Halligan are especially sharp.)
Still, the adaptation’s fidelity to its source poses some unmet challenges in dramatizing episodic material originally penned for serial publication. After three hours, variations on the same basic message start to blunt the impact despite the best of intentions.
“Tom,” Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Select Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 1; consult schedule. $10-$38.50. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 3 hours.
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