Freak Show

When it opened on Broadway in 1933, Jack Kirkland’s subhuman dramatization of the Erskine Caldwell novel Tobacco Road received mixed to negative reviews. Even though it had “spasmodic moments of merciless power,” wrote critic Brooks Atkinson, it was “one of the grossest episodes ever put on the stage.” The production looked headed for sudden death.

The producer posted a closing notice. But to create the dirt-poor, sharecropper milieu of Georgia’s Tobacco Road, he’d put so much sludge and rusted junk on stage he couldn’t pay to clean it up. So he let the beast run, in spite of the notices. After a while, word-of-mouth caught on: Great Depression’s got you down? Come watch degradation like you wouldn’t believe! People did, and the production ran for seven and a half years and a record, at the time, 3182 performances.

Set a dozen miles from Augusta, Georgia, Caldwell’s novel walks a skinny path between X-rated sleaze and a portrait of rustic determination. The Lester family is caught in what economist Jeffrey D. Sachs calls (in his remarkable book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet) a “poverty trap.” One billion people in today’s world suffer from what Caldwell was among the first to describe in detail.

The only thing growing on the Lesters’ farm is the interest on a loan that Jeeter can’t repay. His family’s so hungry, a single turnip’s a feast. Extreme poverty has ripped away psychological boundaries, making the Lesters selfish, violent, and sexually rapacious — as when Jeeter stands on a chopping block, peers through a window, and Peeping Toms his son’s wedding night.

Unlike his God’s Little Acre (1933), a more overtly proletarian novel about striking “linthead” mill-workers, in Tobacco Road Caldwell complicates matters by adding unsentimental comic touches. And for most of the novel he distributes the blame: from society and ruthless economics to something inherent in the Lesters themselves. Then, after Jeeter and wife Ada are burned in a fire, Caldwell writes an eight-page elegy to the man who “would lots rather grow a big crop of cotton than go to heaven.”

Caldwell approved of Kirkland’s script, but it’s hard to see why. Kirkland tweaked the squalor scenes, which trundle into each other without relief, and pruned what little humanity exists in the novel — including the last eight pages. Instead of Jeeter and Ada dying in a fire, she gets hit by a car driven by her dim-bulb son Dude (who observes, “I guess the wheels ran over her”). Jeeter feels nothing for his wife. “My concern is with the living,” he says as she dies trying to bite him.

The novel’s ending turns outward, into social commentary; the play tries to top itself with a twist even more bizarre than the others. Kirkland reduces the Lesters to their lowest common denominator. Caged animals are more civil. But then again, caged animals don’t make for a box-office sensation.

At the La Jolla Playhouse, director David Schweizer uses expressionistic touches to overstate the obvious. Lights and sounds blare and ingratiate. In the original ending, a rotting shingle falls on the porch. On the playhouse stage, the Lesters’ shack — tilted like Dorothy’s home plunked in Oz — loses its walls in act two. And, in case anyone’s missing the point, sections of the plywood walls above the set peel away. They slam the stage like a hammer, as does the production, a freak show of Homeric proportions.

David Zinn’s set is abstract and overactive. His relentlessly unappealing costumes, however, are a daring choice. Tattered, filthy beiges and browns, they define what it means to be dirt poor. When they get a washing, which may be once a month at best, it’s with brackish water from a downstage hand pump. And all the soap in Georgia couldn’t scrub out the sweat. The costumes are so realistic, one feels sympathy for the actors. The cotton shirts and shifts clinging to them like glue must reek to high heaven.

The production is most eloquent when the cast doesn’t say or do anything. Those worn faces (Lucy Ann Albert’s mute Grandma) and deformities (Kate Dalton’s harelipped Ellie May, rejected by a family of rejects) tell a much deeper story. As does Jan Leslie Harding, a Craig Noel Award–winner for her performance in the Playhouse’s Adding Machine, who loads the weight of the world onto Ada’s slumping shoulders. Catherine Curtin gives Sister Bessie notes of hope when she considers marriage. John Fleck, the great performance artist, doesn’t skimp on Jeeter’s blind selfishness or depravity.

PR for Tobacco Road makes claims to relevance, the mortgage crisis in particular. But the question the production keeps asking is: What will this menagerie of demented bumpkins do next? If you are a schadenfreudian, if you derive pleasure from the sufferings of others, you’ll love this mongrel. If not, stay away.

Tobacco Road, by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell
La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD
Directed by David Schweizer; cast: John Fleck, Lucy Ann Albert, Catherine Curtin, Kate Dalton, Mary Deaton, Joel J. Gelman, Jan Leslie Harding, Jesse MacKinnon, Chris Reed, Sam Rosen, Josh Wade; scenic and costume design, David Zinn; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; composer and sound designer, Shahrokh Yadegari
Playing through October 26; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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