Tobacco Road American Blues Theater
"Only Lord knows how I loathe
this place called Tobacco Road."
—John D. Loudermilk
Once upon a time Jack Kirkland's stage version of the Erskine Caldwell novel Tobacco Road was a full-fledged phenomenon. The original Broadway production ran for eight years, 1933 to 1941, racking up 3,182 performances—still the second highest total for a nonmusical, after Life With Father. Fabled New York Times theater critic Brook Atkinson wrote, "Although Tobacco Road reels around the stage like a drunken stranger to the theatre, it has spasmodic moments of merciless power when truth is flung into your face with all the slime that truth contains. That is why Mr. Caldwell's grossness cannot be dismissed as morbidity and gratuitous indecency."
All the same, a lot of people chose to dismiss Mr. Caldwell's grossness in that very way, including Chicago mayor Edward Kelly, who called Tobacco Road "a mass of outrageous obscenity" and banned it from being performed in the city. (Enterprising producers tried presenting it on a showboat—the Dixiana, based in Michigan City—but threw in the towel after the Dixiana sank, got rammed by an out-of-control naval reserve vessel, and then sank again for reasons unrelated to the ramming.)
Now you've got to squint some to see what all the fuss was about. Kirkland's script, currently being staged by American Blues Theater, is indeed a mass of obscenity—practically everybody in it behaves shockingly. But the most offensive thing about it at this point isn't what Atkinson called grossness. It's what he called truth—specifically, the play's depiction of "the complete degeneracy of the Georgia cracker."
To get a sense of what Atkinson meant, try imagining a skit from the old Hee Haw TV show teased out to evening length by Sam Shepard. Tobacco Road covers roughly two days in the lives of the Lesters, a family of tenant farmers inhabiting a rundown shack in the Georgia backcountry. The Lesters are suffering the worst privations of the Great Depression—but they're not responding with the rough-hewn dignity of the Dust Bowl folks photographed by Caldwell's sometime wife Margaret Bourke-White. Mama Ada's got pellagra and a snuff addiction. Stupid 16-year-old Dude is way beyond adolescent surliness, mouthing off viciously to his parents and chasing his practically feral grandma under the porch. An old maid at 18, Ellie May has a harelip, a bad case of the hots, and the goofy, indiscriminate enthusiasm of a village idiot. Patriarch Jeeter surpasses them all, though. A thieving, lecherous, almost certainly incestuous self-justifying malingerer, barely cunning enough to grab somebody else's food and make grand plans for projects he'll never carry out, Jeeter would be the quintessential redneck caricature if only he had hisself a jug.
The one goldfish in this swamp is 12-year-old Pearl, the 17th Lester child, whose beauty and self-respect—she continually tries to run away from her husband, Lov, despite his attempts to win her affection by "chunking rocks and sticks at her"—mark her as a visitor from another gene pool.
All of the above not withstanding, Kirkland wasn't playing the Lesters for laughs. On the contrary, his stage directions spin Tobacco Road as serious social discourse. "Poverty, want, squalor, degeneracy, pitiful helplessness and grotesque, tragic lusts have stamped a lost, outpaced people with the mark of inevitable end," he wrote. Ignorance, isolation, and above all inbreeding were driving the Lesters of the world to extinction.
Which adds a creepy tinge of eugenics to the retrograde caricatures, making the play that much harder for a 21st-century American theater company to produce successfully. How do you put on a historically significant play that demonstrates all the cultural sensitivity, in places, of a minstrel show?
Director Cecilie Keenan hasn't got the answer. Where Kirkland suggested a tone of "grim humor," much of Keenan's revival alternates between easy laughs—making a piece of business, for instance, out of Jeeter and Ada trying to remember their kids' names—and a naturalism that sinks over and over again into inadvertent comedy. Lacking a strategy for neutralizing cracker stereotypes, the production gets overrun by them. The mere sight of Dennis Cockrum's Jeeter pulling his battered hat down over his eyes for a snooze on the porch comes across as an ugly ethnic joke, and the possibility of empathy disappears.
Strangely, though, it returns now and then, particularly in the second half, when Carmen Roman's Ada begins to dominate the narrative and the play acknowledges what it means to her to be subjugated by a fool. In those brief moments, Tobacco Road feels fierce and new.