Every beat of Lost on the Natchez Trace is dutifully hit, the performances a lively mix of horror, teasing rage and terror. There is not, however, a moment that feels fresh or surprising in Jan Buttram’s anti-slavery play, which finds injured slave auctioneer Malcolm at the mercy of runaway slave Tom.
Dutifully (if somewhat didactic), Buttram presents both sides of the situation. Malcolm only sold Tom and his wife and son at auction because he was drunk; Tom isn’t an angry black man, but a grieving family man who is desperate to know what became of his wife. But as they parry and thrust, Buttram’s basic premise is stretched to the breaking point to fill 90 minutes, mostly via Malcolm’s repeated and vehement denials. Since the play would be ultimately pointless if Malcolm wasn’t guilty of what Tom accused him of, his protestations are met with resigned sighs and checks of our watches before Buttram moves on.
And moves on she does, straight into Southern Gothic, matched by the evocative set design from Andrew Lu that recreates the Spanish moss trailing trees of Southern swampland via ingeniously twisted ropes. As the play turns darker, Buttram tosses in some truly vivid descriptions of what drove Tom away from the plantation—and it’s nothing you ever saw in Gone with the Wind.
Unfortunately, given the tiny Abingdon stage and the small scale of Buttram’s play, director Kate Bushman can only do so much with the script—especially since Malcolm’s wounded leg renders him mostly immobile. As Tom, Leopold Lowe moves around enough for them both, leaping over and onto the rope branches and occasionally bursting into song. Peter Brouwer’s performance as Malcolm is mostly rooted in his bushy eyebrows, and too often turns shrill during his endless denials. By the time we arrive at the play’s twist—which Bushman telegraphed early on—it’s pretty obvious that Buttram has brought a clearly marked map to bear on Lost on the Natchez Trace. Knowing we’re comfortably on our way from Point A to Point B may be soothing, but it also distinctly lacks the element of surprise.
Lost on the Natchez Trace
Through Feb. 26, Abingdon Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), www.abingdontheatre.org.
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