Buttram, Abingdon's founding artistic director, sets this two-hander in 1825 in the Mississippi swamplands of the title. Malcolm Jeters, a slave auctioneer on the run from an auction-block mishap, is waylaid by a storm and winds up severely injured and caught in the tangle of a tree. Tom, a runaway slave, pulls him down, and Jeters begins bargaining with Tom to help him out of the swamp. But Tom has his own agenda. Just a week ago he; his wife, Mary; and their newborn babe were put up for sale and separated under Jeters' auctioneering. Tom was sold first and carried away, and now he wants to know what happened to Mary.
Buttram quickly gets to the basics of her story but then spends more time than necessary in getting it moving. Tom keeps asking Jeters where Mary is, and Jeters keeps denying that he ever dealt in slaves. But once Jeters admits to the details of his profession, the descriptions of the slave pen and the auction process are at once riveting and harrowing. A chilling metaphysical turn as the play nears its end also does away with any criticism that this meeting of Tom and Jeters in the middle of nowhere is a little too coincidental.
Under Kate Bushmann's direction, Peter Brouwer, as Jeters, and Leopold Lowe, as Tom, deliver richly detailed portrayals. They take the audience deep inside these two tormented men, Jeters sinking into a darkening cesspool of guilt and Tom tortured with anguish over the fate of his family. Lowe also imbues Tom with a vibrant physicality, scampering nimbly over Andrew Lu's splendid set, using giant coils of rope to represent suffocating swampy growth. Bathed in Travis McHale's crepuscular light, it evokes relentless foreboding. Also to be commended is the actors' unassailable concentration in the more-than-intimate venue in which they're working, with onlookers almost in their face.
But the play—despite some repetitious and obvious dialogue—is the thing. While an anti-slavery tract might seem so 1860, Buttram gives her characters a moving humanity, and "Lost on the Natchez Trace" is a cautionary reminder of the inhumanity of which man has been and still is capable.
Presented by and at Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 W. 36th St., NYC. Feb. 12–26. Wed. and Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 868-2055 or www.abingdontheatre.org. Casting by William Schill.