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Open: 02/03/12- Close: 02/26/12 Lost On The Natchez Trace
Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

LOST ON THE NATCHEZ TRACE, the new play by the Abingdon Theatre’s Artistic Director Jan Buttram, builds on the Abingdon’s tradition of nurturing and producing thought-provoking new American plays.   Set in 1825, the play tells the story of a wily auctioneer, Malcolm Jeters, who’s gotten himself lost in swampland on his way to Georgia.  Starving, hurt, and sick with fever, he’s literally at the end of his rope—then he encounters Tom, a field slave as fiercely intelligent as he is mercurial.   Just who Tom and Malcolm are—and what they’re doing in the swamp—is the crux of the conflict.   Tom says Malcolm sold him and his wife on the auction block; Malcolm claims he never participated in slave auctions…but his repeated denials become less and less convincing.   Malcolm thinks Tom is lost, then he suspects Tom has run away from his master…only how is Tom surviving by himself in this bleak wilderness?  In the end, the truth is more complicated—and harrowing—than either could have imagined. 

Buttram’s play takes an unflinching look at a particularly ugly moment in American history.   The dialogue does not shy away from racial epithets—both Malcolm and Tom use them—nor do the characters mince words in describing the suffering they have seen.   The play portrays the prejudice and violence of the age with a brutal honesty.  This is particularly evident when Malcolm and Tom enact a slave auction that grows increasingly real with every new detail. .  At the same time, Buttram reveals startling moments of joy and tenderness —as when Tom remembers carving a doll for his baby daughter, or Malcolm recalls life on his farm with his wife and children.  Neither man is a complete victim or villain—and surprisingly, Buttram finds empathy for both, even Malcolm, who could have easily turned into Simon Legree.  Buttram has a particular gift for vivid monologues that plumb the depth of her characters’ souls.  

The conflict stalls as Malcolm and Tom reach their essential impasse—Malcolm keeps denying he’s auctioned slaves, Tom keeps pressing him for memories of the auction that split him apart from his wife and new baby—but once the two men begin to enact a slave auction, the momentum accelerates, and the play hurtles to its unsettling conclusion.

Under Kate Bushman’s skillful direction, actors Peter Brouwer and Leopold Lowe deliver tour de force performances.  As Malcolm, Brouwer captures the Shakespearean grandeur and snakeoil charm of an 1820’s auctioneer, with unexpected flashes of vulnerability beneath the affable veneer.  In the auction scenes, he transforms from a man bent over in debilitating pain to a showman fighting for his life, playing the crowd as he stops at nothing—not even his moral scruples—to sell human beings.  Leopold Lowe is wondrous as Tom, capturing the character’s fierce intelligence and feral grace.  He leaps at Malcolm like a bobcat one minute, then cradles him the next.   He shifts effortlessly between moods and personae as Tom enacts various memories, from his wife being sold to the jeering of the auction crowd.   

Set designer Andrew Lu ingeniously evokes the humid swampland setting with nothing but coils of ropes and wisps of cheesecloth.  The ropes snake across the stage and over the audience heads, evoking the play’s rich imagery and multiple meanings, becoming everything from trees to nooses.   Incredibly, Lu preserves the intimacy of the Strelsin space while also creating a vast sense of mysterious wilderness.

In all, LOST ON THE NATCHEZ TRACE is a fascinating play that offers a harrowing glimpse at the human cost of slavery.  Though the pacing lags at times, it features two strong performances, fluid direction,  and ingenious design—it’s another gem for Abingdon.

Dorothy Strelsin Theatre : 312 West 36th Street, Second Floor