Sex and Satire Stir the Old South

    {grate 2.5}

    Starring John Fleck, Kate Dalton, and Jan Leslie Harding

    Directed by David Schweizer

    Contains adult content and graphic language

    The collision of overt sexuality and immodest religiosity erupts into an only modestly cliche reflection of family structure in “Tobacco Road,” the stage adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel. Despite cut-chewing hillbillies whispering God-fearing prayers, the play steers far from a trite allegory of Bible Belt South.

    Wrapping up its third week at the La Jolla Playhouse, “Tobacco Road” teeters between the extremities of lewdness and misery in chronicling the Lester family breakdown. With a quick pace that defies its characters’ slurred Southern accents, the play plunges into the Lesters’ economic turmoil as failed sharecroppers, only to emerge heroically in the end with a sliver of hope as arid as the untilled land.

    Jeeter Lester (John Fleck), the family’s obstinate patriarch, refuses to abandon sharecropping in spite of the bank’s imminent repossession of his house. Anchored by tradition, he affirms that “people who’s born on the land should stay on the land,” much to the chagrin of his unrelenting wife Ada (Jan Leslie Harding) and her aspiration to indulge in the shopping districts of a far-away Augusta.

    On the fringes of the stage linger hare-lipped daughter Ellie May (Kate Dalton) and Grandma (Lucy Ann Albert), whose inarticulacy throughout the play reflects the unimportance her family shamelessly attributes to her. Jeeter doggedly professes his indifference to the possibility of Grandmother’s death and repeatedly harasses his daughter for her physical defect.

    Indolence and despondency almost irreversibly dispirit the play — until the yelping prayers and hollering gospel tunes of sex-crazed preacher Sister Bessie (Catherine Curtin) resound. Purging the Lesters of their sins, she hypocritically (and nowhere near subtly) proceeds to seduce Dude (Sam Rosen), the youngest of the Lesters’ seventeen children, into marriage with the promise of a spanking new automobile.

    Meanwhile, Ada struggles relentlessly to harbor her favorite daughter, Pearl (Mary Deaton), who manages to escape the burly embrace of her short-tempered husband, Lov (Chris Reed). When Lov — now out on the prowl — offers Jeeter monetary compensation for his daughter, Pearl hides in the recesses of her family’s house, only to paradoxically expose Ada’s tenacity and Harding’s powerful performance in her character’s ultimate self-sacrifice.

    Jeeter’s impish whims, Ada’s deadpan humor, and Sister Bessie’s unbridled sexuality, combined with the dark humor that laces the plot, animate “Tobacco Road,” an otherwise predictable account of a dysfunctional family weathering the Great Depression.

    Clinging to institutions of the past, the Lesters remain perplexed with the changing present and suspended in its accumulating complexities — this, perhaps, is their fatal flaw. Jeeter, for example, roots himself in family tradition, arguing that because of his ancestral claim to the land, he cannot forfeit it to the bank. However, family dynamics of the present slap him in the face without remorse as — in a reversal of father and son roles — Dude condescendingly orders him, “Boy, you keep away from me when I tell you.” Similarly, although Jeeter and Sister Bessie theoretically pledge themselves to Christianity, they regularly manifest their sexuality in public.

    More than anything else, the aesthetics disappoint in “Tobacco Road.” While the sepia lighting of certain scenes renders them picturesque, the lighting remains only momentarily; in any case, it anachronistically converts the play’s appearance to that of a classic Western film. Similarly, Jeeter’s audience-directed asides, while often providing comedic relief, come off as sprinkled and noncontiguous throughout the play, detract from the plot and at times demand a healthy imagination to comprehend the play’s incoherent staging.

    Toothless though they may be, the Lesters still bite off more of the Great Depression than they can chew, and in the overdone tradition of Steinbeck, proud humanity emerges from their shambles and nothingness. Despite its trite message, “Tobacco Road” serves up a wide emotional range that compensates for the Lesters’ own lack of sustenance. As the current economic recession ensues, it serves as a timely reminder to tackle the present with integrity.

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