Despite the fact that the work remains the second longest-running non-musical in Broadway history, few contemporary theatregoers know the play by Jack Kirkland, who drew on Erskine Caldwell's sometimes grotesque 1932 novel about poor Georgia sharecroppers.
Previews for Triad's revival, directed by the troupe's founding artistic director Preston Lane, began June 10 toward a June 14 opening. Performances continue to July 1.
Lane spoke to Playbill.com about why he chose Tobacco Road — and how it still speaks to us.
"Caldwell is so hard to place as a writer," Preston said. "Critics have compared him to everyone from Faulkner to Steinbeck to Mark Twain. I think his voice — particularly in his three or four great novels, the short stories and 'In Search of Bisco' — is uniquely his own. There is an outrage at the social and racial injustices of the South, a ribald sexuality, a satirical vision of the excesses of Southern religion and a brilliant humorist who wields laughter as a weapon. Tobacco Road rips away the South's desperate attempts to hide its worst sins, giving us an unflinching and uncomfortably funny look at the devastating effect that poverty and ignorance have on the human spirit."
Its oversize passions, its desperate characters and the physical deformities of its people might lead some to think it's almost comic. Is there humor in a story about such hardscrabble people? Lane said, "During the seven-and-a-half years of its Broadway run, the production apparently was played more and more for laughs. The production that had inspired no less than Theodore Dreiser to encourage the Pulitzer Prize committee to honor Tobacco Road as the best play of the year became a tourist attraction that was played for laughs."
Running more than seven years in its original engagement (1933-41), and enjoying several Broadway revivals, the Georgia-set play (according to the Triad Stage announcement) "is the story of dirt poor farmer Jeeter Lester, scheming to hold onto his ramshackle home and plot of land. His wife just wants a 'purty' dress to be buried in and something to eat. Their son wants a car and might just wed a lusty female evangelist to get one. And the rest of the family? Don't ask. Twisted, outrageous, disturbing, Tobacco Road is a fascinating family portrait. Meet the Lesters and see what made America sit up and take notice!"
"The play does have humor," Lane explained. "The Lester family does some horrible things, and some of them are absurdly funny. But I think the humor is based in very real people engaged in very real, if terribly disturbing behavior. Caldwell's father, a minister in Wrens, Georgia, used to say if anyone doubted the truth of his son's novel, he would gladly take them to places and [see the] people that had inspired it."
Is the play's style analogous to the work of contemporary writers?
"I think the play is a precursor to Sam Shepard," Lane said. "It's a strange Depression-era, commercial theatre ancestor of Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child. And there is a definite feeling of a very poor man's Chekhov."
Why did Lane choose Tobacco Road, a show that's rarely revived?
He explained, "Part of our mission is 'to foster a unique southern voice.' Since opening in 2002 we've had at least one Southern play in each season. But for this season I was having a problem. Everything I read was 'that quirky Southern family with the crazy cousins' kind of play, and I felt that we needed to explore a darker view of the South.
"A year before, in tech for a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten, the designers and cast started joking about doing Tobacco Road in rep on the same set. Although I had heard of the play and the novel, I had never read either. Matt Mabe, who was playing Tyrone, encouraged me to read Caldwell, and I started picking up paperbacks in thrift stores.
"I felt the novel and the play gave us an opportunity to start a discussion about a side of our region we prefer to ignore. I also felt the story of the Lester family was a story that continues — not only in the South but anywhere in this country where the immoral gap between the very rich and the very poor threatens the fabric of our civilization. I love exploring these messy and brilliant American dramas that have been unfairly forgotten."
Was there an impulse to update the period of the play? Poverty, after all, is still with us.
"When I first read the play, I wanted to update it to 2007, but that would be almost impossible without major script changes," Lane said. "Much of the plot concerns the possibility of moving to the city and working in the textile mills. Nobody in the South is moving to work in a textile mill these days — unless they're planning to move to China. Greensboro is still reeling from the devastating effects of the collapse of the U.S. textile industry.
"But I also didn't want to do another Depression-era play. I think audiences can dismiss it as something historical and quaint. Reading the play and novel, I felt that Caldwell was writing about people I had known in my childhood in the '70s, so I decided that with a recession, Watergate, Vietnam and good music, 1973 would be a great year for my Tobacco Road.
What prompted Depression-era audiences to flock to a play about poor folks?
"I ask myself this question all the time," Lane said. "I think of the play as a powerful expose of poverty and the dangers of a world where compassion is a luxury. And, perhaps its message had some appeal, particularly in the North. But I think the play probably succeeded, as so much of Caldwell's work did, because of the scandal. He became America's best-selling author as much from the lurid marketing of his paperbacks as from the writing contained inside."
What made the source material so controversial? The depiction of the poor? The under-age bride?
"Sex and religion," Lane said. "Daring to say something negative about a region of the country that still carries a chip on its shoulder because of the Civil War. I think the fact Caldwell exploded the mythical romantic South with works that dared to be both angry and funny infuriated people. He's still considered a traitor by many Southerners who would prefer 'Gone with the Wind.'
"In fact, when I visited Wrens, Georgia, where he lived for several years with his parents and where he was inspired to write Tobacco Road, there was no mention anywhere of Caldwell, while just down the road a statue of Brer Rabbit stands watch over the courthouse square of Joel Chandler Harris' hometown, and Milledgeville is a literary pilgrimage for Flannery O'Connor fans."
The Triad production is still set in Georgia, not relocated to the Carolinas.
"Georgia is so specific to this story," Lane said. "But the amazing thing to me is that while his Georgia is a very real place, Caldwell's Tobacco Road connects us to anywhere, urban or rural, where poverty destroys the human spirit."
North Carolina native Lane shared a glimpse of his production's scenic design, by designer Howard C. Jones: "I had some second or third cousins who lived way back in the mountains. Their family's homeplace had long since fallen down and been replaced by a trailer in a not much better state of repair. As each child got married, another trailer would be added. This image was the starting place for the design. Howard Jones and I wanted to create a sense of the end of the road, a farm where the land was dead, so we've created a rusting metal stage floor that suggests the red dirt of Georgia and the absolute death of the land. Caldwell and Kirkland call for a Chinaberry tree; we've translated this to a more contemporary and familiar parasitic plant, kudzu. I'm sure no matter what the audience thinks of the play, the family who allowed us to dig up a hillside of kudzu will always remember our production fondly."
Triad Stage's Tobacco Road is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the second NEA "Access to Artistic Excellence" Grant awarded to the resident Equity theatre, after the award to its hit original production Brother Wolf.
Triad's Tobacco Road includes participation by University of North Carolina-Greensboro students and faculty, both onstage and behind the scenes.
The cast of Tobacco Road is Ali Bayless as Pearl, Zac J. Campbell as Lov Bensey, Michael Flannery as Captain Tim, David Harrell as George Payne, Lesley Hunt as Grandma Lester, Stephen Losack as Dude Lester, Mack McClain as Henry Peabody, Rosie McGuire as Sister Bessie Rice, Rebecca Nerz as Ellie May Lester, Elisabeth Ritson as Ada Lester and Gordon Joseph Weiss as Jeeter Lester.
The creative team includes scenic designer Howard C. Jones, costume designer Kelsey Hunt, lighting designer John Wolf and sound designer David E. Smith.
All performances are at Triad Stage at The Pyrle Theater, located at 232 South Elm Street in historic downtown Greensboro.
For information, visit www.triadstage.org.