Did you know that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, after the Bible, the best-selling book of the 19th century? Theatrical versions were so popular that some estimate the number of people who saw a stage adaptation is 10 times the enormous number who read the book. So when the Point Park Conservatory Theatre Company subtitles its production “The Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen,” they ain’t foolin’.
One of the play’s most viewed adaptations was by George Aiken. Now Tomé Cousin and Jason Jacobs have rummaged through his six-act script and, with Douglas Levine’s wonderfully evocative score, crafted a tight, dramatic, intensely compelling two-act version.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is so famous it’s referenced in other works. The story concerns two slaves sold by their owner to pay off debts. Eliza escapes (“on the ice,” according to Company) to Canada, but Uncle Tom is sold first to look after little Eva (“So Long Honey Lamb,” from Funny Lady), then to the monstrously evil Simon Legree (The King and I).
Cousin and Jacobs’s aim is to rescue the work from all its accumulated baggage (the term “Uncle Tom” is not one you would have used in the past 70 years) and to present Stowe’s — and Aiken’s — story center-stage. This they do, thanks to a knock-out student cast, without the slightest hint of irony or contemporary shading. You are allowed, rather than forced, to draw your own Black Lives Matter and/or Syrian refugee parallels. (It’s only in the final few minutes that Cousin and Jacobs attempt modern contextualizing which, because it’s so stylistically opposed to the preceding two hours, feels false.)
What’s captivating about this lucid production, is its attempt to get a handle on the missing character — Stowe’s own audience. This melodramatic, highly sentimental story is clearly meant for a very white, very Christian, very Northern audience, and Stowe is hectoring them to examine their own hypocrisy and self-serving platitudes (are you listening, Kendall?), and demanding outrage and action.
There’s a story that Lincoln said to Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” It’s probably not true, but still a fitting tribute to this remarkable story.