Also see Bill's review of Nine
Jack Kirkland's play, Tobacco Road, is the second longest-running play in Broadway history, after Life With Father. It was based on Erskine Caldwell's novel of the same name, which the Modern Library ranked 91st on its list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. Yet, the play was a considerable hit with Broadway audiences, though not the critics. Brooks Atkinson's decidedly mixed review in The New York Times called it "one of the grossest episodes ever put on the stage" but tempered this comment by saying that Caldwell's original novel was written "with a fiery sword" and praised some of the performances. A 1941 film, directed by John Ford, was a box office flop and none too popular with many critics, either. Despite its success with audiences of the time, the play version of Tobacco Road has rarely been revived.
David Schweizer's production of Tobacco Road, which runs through October 26 at the La Jolla Playhouse, doesn't resolve the mystery of its earlier success. In fact, it de-emphasizes the humor of the piece in favor of playing up a sense of impending doom. Set in and around a ramshackle cabin built unsteadily on dirt outside of Augusta, Georgia, members of the extended Lester family wait out the Great Depression on their fallow land. Over time, they have come to expect that all of their chances for salvation will be blocked, and, while they haven't given up entirely, they have become inured to any sort of tragedy. Life itself is tragic enough and will eventually consume them, and, of course, eventually just that happens.
David Zinn's dull scenic and costume design and Christopher Akerlind's stark lighting create a harsh and dirt-filled environment for these proceedings, while Shahrokh Yadegari's sound design is so minimalist as almost not to exist, though it does tend to show up when something bad is about to happen. Mr. Schweizer's direction emphasizes horror over humor; these are people whose lives are falling apart bit by bit, and they feel entirely powerless to do anything about it.
What saves the evening, at least somewhat, are the performances. John Fleck (yes, that John Fleck, the performance artist who was one of the NEA Four) provides the requisite force of nature as Jeeter Lester, the head of the clan. Jan Leslie Harding, as Jeeter's wife Ada, looks far too young and pretty for her role, but it is the arc of her performance that is most beautiful. Chris Reed looks like a monster, and Schweizer has directed his appearances to seem as though Freddy Krueger had once again escaped. Surprisingly and effectively, Mr. Reed plays up the sensitive and tragic side of his character, who, despite a financial deal that brought him the prettiest daughter as his bride, is not yet part of the family. Catherine Curtin contributes some of the small amount of humor in this production in her turn as a randy itinerant preacher. Of the other family members, both Sam Rosen, as the 16-year-old Dude, and Mary Deaton, as the 12-year old Pearl, look far too old for their characters; both Kate Dalton, as the 23-year-old Ellie May and Lucy Ann Albert, as Grandma, are asked to play their parts within an overly limited range.
In the end, Tobacco Road is a play that fails to speak to contemporary audiences. Its seven-year Broadway run seems to have been driven in part by an opportunity to see language and sexuality portrayed onstage in a manner that was shocking for the time. Daytime television today goes much further than does this play in that regard. And, as the shock value wore off, the cast increasingly played these Georgia crackers as stereotypes, for laughs, a strategy that would be as unacceptable to today's audiences as it was to Mr. Caldwell, who was said to have disliked the play that his novel became. There are not many viable production choices left, and Mr. Schweizer's choice to play the horror of the situation turns out not to resonate, either. Even so, the final comment of Mr. Atkinson's 1933 New York Times review seems apt: "Plays as clumsy and rudderless as Tobacco Road seldom include so many scattered items that leave such a vivid impression."
Tobacco Road, written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell, is a production of the La Jolla Playhouse, Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays through October 26. Tickets and information: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.
Tobacco Road is directed by David Schweizer, with Scenic and Costume Design by David Zinn, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Sound Design by Shahrokh Yadegari, Vocal and Dialect Coaching by Annie Hinton, and Dramaturgy by Gabriel Greene. With Lucy Ann Albert, Catherine Curtin, Kate Dalton, Mary Deaton, John Fleck, Joel J. Gelman, Jan Leslie Harding, Jesse Mackinnon, Chris Reed, Sam Rosen, and Josh Wade.