By Jillian Risberg
Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road,” the searing drama about Depression-era Georgia, shocked 1933 America. But 75 years after it first opened on Broadway, director David Schweizer packs a one-two punch of brutal honesty and raw emotion equally resonant for contemporary audiences, who have experienced the ravaging effects of war and economic turmoil.
“With people being kind of crushed and dispossessed by the culture that they thought was going to take care of them and then to have it all come crashing down, we are so timely now,” said Schweizer, who is making his debut at La Jolla Playhouse with “Tobacco Road,” which runs through Oct. 26.
We get to know the Lesters, who have little promise for redemption on their dusty back road, far from Augusta. With no hope, no money, no fuel and no seed, they sink deeper into despair and fantasize about leaving their degenerate life behind. A cast of veteran actors and brilliant newcomers delve into razor-sharp dialogue tinged with perverse humor, religiosity and unrestrained sexuality.
Grandma (Lucy Ann Albert) is silent and largely overlooked, while Sister Bessie’s (Catherine Curtin) outspoken and forward, sexual and God-preaching ways entice and disturb. Dude Lester (Sam Rosen), a disrespectful and rambunctious boy of 16 is counter to his sister Ellie May (Kate Dalton), who barely says a word due to a disfiguring split lip. Pearl’s (Mary Deaton) pretty blond is revered as the “desired” daughter and Lov Bensey (Chris Reed) is her imposing and demanding husband. Jeeter Lester (John Fleck) portrays the lazy, opinionated patriarch and Ada Lester (Jan Leslie Harding) is his frail, feeble wife.
The actors bring depth to an already gritty story with multi-layered performances. John Fleck reigns as hillbilly Jeeter - strong, weary and complex. When a single spotlight illuminates him between scenes to narrate plot and characters, we feel intimately informed.
Jan Leslie Harding is subtly intense as Ada, her pain and longing is ours. The role of Dude Lester was made for Sam Rosen, who owns the stage - exuding self-important passion, intensity and humor.
Catherine Curtin plays Sister Bessie with fiery resolve, and her trampy preaching is pointedly disturbing. Kate Dalton is eerily present as Ellie-May, the quiet, sex-starved teenager who paces and fidgets as her dysfunctional family regularly points out her ugly looks. Chris Reed’s portrayal of the slow lug of a man, Lov Bensey, evokes a strident sadness in his pursuit of wife Pearl, who wants no part of his advances. With few words, Mary Deaton (Pearl) imparts the long-suffering wife and child borne of mom Ada’s affair.
David Zinn’s striking minimalist set design depicts rural Georgia in the 1930s with such perfection you can see, touch and taste the surroundings. His period costumes and simple country style evoke the time with ease.
“Tobacco Road” is an intimate depiction of the socially authentic attitudes, behaviors and references that were acceptable at that point in history. Prepare to laugh, cringe, gasp and think. It is stirring entertainment worth witnessing.
‘Tobacco Road’- Through Oct. 26
- La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum
- 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla
- (858) 550-1010,