When Dion Boucicault's provocative melodrama The Octoroon opened in New York in 1859, its audience's deep divisions over slavery mirrored the bitter North-South rift that would soon erupt into civil war. And while America has done much to eradicate racism in the past 147 years, its ugly residue remains, making this vibrant, richly detailed, movingly acted revival a welcome addition to fall's theatre offerings.
Set on a Southern plantation run by a good-hearted widow, the play centers on the doomed love affair between her dead husband's illegitimate daughter, Zoe, and her European-educated nephew, George. Zoe bears the stigma "octoroon" -- her mother was a quadroon slave, the daughter of a mulatto and a white. Boucicault is a master of the "well-made play," and his fast-paced tale of romance, intrigue, lust, greed, murder, and prejudice -- complete with stolen letters, a fire, and poison -- is peppered with impassioned speeches voicing the ideas that were sweeping the country toward war and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Director Alex Roe's production is a masterpiece of inspired staging that brims with life, featuring brilliant ensemble work: Wendy Merritt's kind, stoic Mrs. Peyton, determined to preserve the values of her beloved husband; Michael Hardart's confident, idealistic George; Alia Chapman's hymn-singing Grace -- especially moving when she begs the man who bought her husband to buy her; Alex Ubokudom's well-meaning, obedient Solon; Sarah Hankins' Dora, a giddy Southern belle whose integrity is revealed through adversity; Tryphena Wade's capable slave Dido; and Justin Stevens' teenage Paul, irreverent toward both races and Boucicault's forward-looking embodiment of the first generation of free blacks. And as the plantation's head slave, Old Pete, bent over his cane but still commanding respect through his wisdom, humor, and spiritual strength, Lee Dobson creates a memorable, richly nuanced portrait. When Old Pete climbs onto the table in the disturbing slave-auction scene, insisting he can work despite his age and saying, "See, I can still dance," as he hops about pathetically, he drives home the utter degradation and dehumanization of slavery.
Equally engaging are Ray McDavitt's well-meaning Southern gentleman; Arthur Acuna's intensely physical Native American; John Rengstorff's slave auctioneer; Andrew Clateman's captain; and David Lamb's quintessential 19th-century villain, Jacob M'Closky. Roe's only directorial misstep is having Lamb deliver internal monologues directly to the audience. And given the play's considerable length, the scenes in which a terrified, guilt-ridden M'Closky barrels through swamps could be considerably tightened. Roe himself (replacing Mike Durkin) made an attractive, understated Salem Scudder, a conflicted businessman whose financial missteps push the plantation toward ruin, though his delivery was sometimes unintelligible.
The only uneven note is sounded by Margaret Loesser Robinson, whose Zoe seems acted, not embodied. With every element in place -- appearance, diction, emotion, gesture, expression -- to give Zoe life, the character hovers just under the surface. Perhaps as the run continues, Robinson will let go and give Zoe the freedom she craves.
Melissa Estro's colorful costumes perfectly evoke antebellum Louisiana -- from Paul's knickers with suspenders to Dora's stunning, many-layered belle-of-the-ball gown.
Presented by and at the Metropolitan Playhouse,
220 E. Fourth St., NYC.
Sept. 29-Oct. 29. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 995-5302 or www.metropolitanplayhouse.org.