Seventy-five years ago, critics scoffed but audiences cheered to the sleazily hilarious adventures of the shiftless no-accounts living along Erskine Caldwell’s Georgia backwoods “Tobacco Road.” Today, helmer David Schweizer’s bold hyperrealism tries to derive heavy thematic import beyond — and often at the expense of — the warhorse’s coarse fun. His approach doesn’t resonate precisely as intended, but can’t be dismissed. Expect many eyebrows, and even more hackles, to be raised at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Malodorous daily life of the depraved Lester clan remains pretty much as Jack Kirkland shaped it in 1933. Paterfamilias Jeeter (John Fleck) still lounges on the front porch, discovering new excuses not to work his dry-as-a-bone cotton field. Pellagra-ridden wife Ada (Jan Leslie Harding), yearning for a fancy dress to die in, worries about the future of harelipped Ellie May (Kate Dalton). And always there’s studly Dude (Sam Rosen) bouncing a ball against the shack wall or a scurrying, bent-double Grandma (Lucy Ann Albert).
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Most of the Lester brood have escaped to the relatively prosperous mills of Augusta, but things is happenin’ close t’home. Freelance preacher Bessie (Catherine Curtin) has an eye for Dude, popping out of his overalls. And with daughter Pearl (Mary Deaton) positively repelled by new husband Lov Bensey (Chris Reed), maybe Lov might settle for Ellie.
As long as there’s a neighbor to rook out of some corn meal or a single offspring to pimp out, Jeeter ain’t a-goin’ to budge.
Expressionistic touches suggest more on Schweizer’s mind than laughs and libido. Cast freezes periodically as a pin-spotted Jeeter indulges in Brechtian direct address; momentous occasions are accompanied by Shahrokh Yadegari’s nervous guitar and banjo thrumming.
And David Zinn’s impossibly angled Lester shack looks ready to tumble backwards as a physical manifestation of a society off its hinges. Before long, in a fairly obvious nod to Stephen Daldry’s 1994 “An Inspector Calls,” the set starts transforming itself to reflect what Schweizer has defined as “a community … ground down, crushed by circumstances around them.”
The trouble with “Tobacco Road” as a metaphor for the mistreated poor is the Lesters themselves, clearly the architects of their own misfortune. When mogul Captain Tim (Josh Wade) and banker Payne (Joel J. Gelman) — each mustachioed, suitable for twirling — threaten foreclosure, we’re supposed to mourn today’s victims of bank greed. But could this spread be in less capable hands than Jeeter’s? Jessica Lange struggling to save the family farm, he ain’t.
Despite itself, what Schweizer’s production really amounts to is a wickedly funny corrective to any Steinbeckian vision of underclass solidarity. His joyfully selfish characters, enjoying their appetites with the gusto of Italian opera, chomp down on the grapes of wrath and send the juice into their neighbors’ eyes. (And the shockingly casual repetition of the N-word — in reference to the one group the Lesters feel superior to — gives the lie to any notion of brotherhood.)
Though Schweizer’s mixed-metaphorical trappings are something of a downer, the players offer considerable guilty fun. Fleck could use more twinkle to render Jeeter’s final cruelties more surprising, and Curtin’s entrances are all too similar, but each is a full-blooded and deeply felt type who commands attention. Harding’s Ada gains stature as her life options narrow, and Rosen’s Dude could be surlier but not more unconsciously sensual.
The most outrageous characters are portrayed most authentically. Man-mountain Reed conveys the needy fury of a husband denied, while hinting at Lov’s incipient kindness. Meanwhile, Dalton trips across the yard like a demented Lolita, looking for love in all conceivable wrong places including Lov’s lap. After only a few seconds we see her vulnerability, her passion and her underpants — the Lester family trifecta.