Theatre: TOM: Reinventing a Classic
July 14, 2016 - Reviewed by Justin Biel
TOM, an adaption of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” opened Saturday, June 18th at the Theatricum Botanicum.
Developed for the stage by writer and director Ellen Geer, TOMprovides a new look at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestseller, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Geer’s adaptation of the novel highlights the true characteristics of the strong, determined, loving “Uncle Tom” alongside the brutal nature of America’s slave-trading past, while also providing unique insights into the life of the revolutionary feminist behind the famous novel. Set in 1886, just after the death of Stowe’s husband, the play follows Harriet Beecher Stowe as she deals with her own declining health while obsessively re-writing her manuscript of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The play alternates between scenes of Stowe at her writing desk and the struggle playing out among the novel’s main characters.
When not directly scripting the novel or discussing the political injustice flaming her literary fire, Harriet’s character watches, emotionally wrought by the characters’ hardships and their seemingly insurmountable fight against slavery.
The play opens with Harriet at her desk writing and gives reference to her outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 before jumping into the beginning of the novel. It’s here we meet George Harris and his wife, Eliza, as they make the decision to run away from their master, a Kentucky farmer named Mr. Shelby.
The adaptation continues to flow smoothly through the novel’s original story line, with cut’s between Stowe and her novel’s iconic characters.
On Mr. Shelby’s property, we meet the kind and strong Tom, played tremendously well by Gerald C. Rivers, as he deals with the news of his sale to a slave trader. From this initial scene, Rivers portrays Tom with class and skill, shining new light on his depth of character and caring nature.
Stuck within the confines of the aggressive slave trader, Tom saves the child, Eva, and is subsequently purchased by the child’s father, Simeon Augustine. Under the ownership of the Augustine family, Tom is promised his freedom, yet when Simeon dies of unnatural causes, the man’s wife revokes the promise.
Here enters the antagonist, Simon Legree, an evil plantation owner who purchases Tom, taking him to the depths of plantation country in Southern Louisiana. At Legree’s plantation, Tom’s Christian faith is tested regularly by the brutalities to which he’s subjected; yet through all the suffering and cruelty, Tom never falters.
On his deathbed, Tom has the courage to forgive his murderers, changing the lives of the novel’s characters forever and positively impacting society for generations to come.
TOM’s message remains righteous throughout, admonishing all forms of slavery and inequality in the world, yet solid in the belief that goodness triumphs over evil.
The cast has many standout performers. Gerald C. Rivers, as Tom, carries the show with emotion and strength. Melora Marshall as Harriet Beecher Stowe gives a gripping performance. Jasmine Gatewood, as Eliza, brings character depth and a beautifully trained voice. Shannon Shepherd, as Cassie, brings powerful monologues and stage presence. Clarence Powell, as Quimbo, seethes palpable anger and internal contradiction in his role as plantation overseer, and Thad Geer, as Simon Legree, shines as the antagonistic symbol of evil, a man caught between his need for power, control and his own demons.
Through the study of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the experience of viewing TOM, we are reminded of the importance of the great novel and the impact of literature and art to create social change.
Stowe wrote a daring novel and took an outright stance against a major political issue. Breaking all societal rules for a woman of her time, she attempted to bring justice and progress to humanity through the arts. We can all learn a great deal from Stowe, find inspiration through her fight for equality, and be reminded of the treacherous system of slavery that impacts our nation and world still today.
Slavery is not a dead issue. Through challenging social and economic forces we’re experiencing a modern resurgence of slavery. It’s estimated that more than 21 million people worldwide are enslaved today; most are stuck in some form of labor slavery (78%) and sex slavery (22%).
Today, the slave industry generates $150 billion dollars for traffickers each year. To learn more about the modern day slavery epidemic and to find out how you can help, please visit: Free The Slaves: freetheslaves.net.
TOM runs through October 1. Completing this year’s series of plays are: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that runs through September 23; Romeo and Juliet, that runs through October 2; The Imaginary Invalid opens Saturday, July 9, and runs through October 2; and Titus Andronicus, opens Saturday, July 30 and runs through October 1.
Tickets range from $10-$38.50; children six and under are free. For further information, a complete performance schedule and to purchase tickets: (310) 455-3723 or at Theatricum.com.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.