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Although we often fault movies for not being as good as books, sometimes the decision to move from printed word to drama is a sound one, for what humanizes a character more than flesh and blood? The American Century Theater’s mounting of the 1850s abolitionist saga Uncle Tom’s Cabin even puts the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (Jack Baker, who moves gracefully in and out of the four characters she plays), onstage to narrate the story. The company used George Aiken’s 1852 adaptation of Stowe’s novel as a starting point, but stripped it of its more melodramatic and creakily humorous aspects and characters. Stowe’s squarely Victorian, evangelical Christian world still looks as foreign to 21st-century eyes as anything out of Shakespeare, but directors Jack Marshall and Ed Bishop, aided by an accomplished technical crew, bring this period piece to life by disappearing, leaving all of the visible work in the actors’ hands. Marc A. Wright’s efficient set design consists of wooden boxes that are rearranged by the company to create ice floes, mountains, and furniture. Music consultant Jack Kyrieleison has the actors sing period songs such as “Gentle Annie” between scenes. Kathryn Fuller’s ahistorical costumes suggest rather than overwhelm. And a consistently strong ensemble makes even the most parody-worthy characters into real people. Ray Felton’s Simon Legree, a black-leather-clad, cannonball-voiced brute, never slips into cartoon villainy. And if the saccharinely saintly Little Eva is the script’s least plausible character, Alexandria Lundelius does a fine job of making her as real a little girl as possible. But it’s Uncle Tom, whose very name has become synonymous with craven capitulation, who is most redeemed by this production. Tom is a man who keeps his word and honors the law, but he’s not spineless: He refuses to flee to Canada but supports and even aids his fellow slaves in doing so, and when told by his master that he will soon be freed—a promise that is tragically broken—he openly exults. Playing a Christ figure is a tall order for any actor, but Michael Sainte-Andress imbues Tom with humanity through his expressive face, easy conversational style, and unflinching physicality. Joe Cronin’s rustic Phineas Fletcher brings some humor to this moral drama, but there is little easy entertainment otherwise: The slave auction—with Legree standing among the audience—is harrowing, and the writhing, gasping death scenes ring true. Hardest of all to watch—at least for this white liberal suburbanite—is Linda Terry’s performance as the abused slave girl Topsy: a toothy, screeching, pop-eyed grotesque who might have sprung from a pickaninny caricature. As the prim Yankee Ophelia (Signe Allen Linscott), who mouths an aversion to slavery but ultimately reveals an aversion to slaves, recoils from her, so do we—and that’s one of the many ways TACT makes what could be a baggage-ridden relic into a story that is gripping, thought-provoking, and even timeless. —Pamela Murray Winters