REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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The cast for “Tobacco Road” features award-winning ABT Ensemble members Matthew Brumlow (Dude), Kate Buddeke (Sister Bessie), Dennis Cockrum (Jeeter), James Leaming (multiple roles), Suzanne Petri (Grandma), Carmen Roman (Ada) and Gwendolyn Whiteside (Ellie May), along with Laura Coover (Pearl) and James Joseph (Lov).

Joining director Keenan on the artistic staff are ABT Ensemble members James Leaming (scenic and lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound design), and Lauri Dahl (dramaturg); ABT Artistic Affiliates Sarah Ross (costume and properties design), Marty Higginbotham (incidental music, choral director), Jaclyn Holsey (stage manager), Mercedes Rohlfs (assistant dramaturg), Steve Key (special effects), and Sarah Burnham and Brian Claggett (production support) Fight choreographer is Joe Foust.

      
     

3 Responses

  1. […] and one Emmy.  From May 21-June 20th, ABT capped its 2009-2010 season with Tobacco Road (our review ★★★) by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell, directed by Cecilie Keenan, […]

  2. […] Tobacco Road (our review […]

  3. […] – TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★½) Tobacco Road – American Blues Theater   (our review […]

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