Why This? Why Now?

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Last year, when the American Blues Theater was formed as a breakaway group by most of the ensemble members of American Theatre Company, I cheered loudly and enthusiastically.  Here was the triumph of the committed ensemble, long an invaluable element of what makes Chicago theater great, over authoritarian Artistic Directors.  As a passionate audience member, I was very excited for the not-so-new theater company and the ambitious heights it would achieve.  So I’m pretty puzzled and quite disappointed that a group so distinguished and so fervent about its art would stage as part of its 25th year celebration a play so overwrought, so broadly-written, so, do I dare say it, irrelevant to a 21st century theater audience as Jack Kirkland’s 1933 adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s best-selling novel Tobacco Road, the second-longest running play in Broadway history (running for 3,182 performances over 8 years, from 1933 to 1941).  In this case, longevity was not an indication of quality.

Tobacco Road is about the Lesters, a family of very poor sharecroppers in rural Georgia in the 1930s, barely scraping by and about to be run off the land they’ve lived on for generations.  But hey, this isn’t some majestic, heroically tragic second cousin to The Grapes of Wrath.  Instead of focusing on the nobility and dignity of struggle and survival, such as John Steinbeck’s masterpiece did, Kirkland plays up, instead, the Lesters’ grotesquerie and ugly, at times repulsive, habits:  incest, child marriage, infidelity, thievery, venality, laziness, shunning of physical deformity.   I never read the book, so I’m not sure if it is Kirkland or it is Caldwell himself who is the culprit, but the play is written so broadly and so condescendingly that I can’t find a hook into the material.  I don’t recognize these characters and nothing in them – not their poorly-depicted fallibility, their one-dimensional motives and relationship dynamics, their lack of need for redemption- speak to me as an audience member in 2010.  My theory as to why this play ran so long on Broadway is based on the type of New York City audiences who embraced this material in the 1930s and 1940s:  Kirkland gave these urban, “sophisticated”, “worldly” audiences an opportunity to feel some form of smug sympathy for these unfortunate characters and in the process, feel like they’ve done their small share in alleviating poverty by recognizing its existence (not necessarily doing anything concrete or specific to eradicate it).   It’s the hollow bleeding-heart-liberal perspective, pre-War style.

It is unfortunate that the material is so inferior and plays like a bad Saturday Night Live skit at times because director Cecilie Keenan stages some of the scenes movingly and honestly.  There’s the scene with the family slowly and quietly savoring every bite of the meager turnips they’ve stolen as if they’re eating some heavenly last meal before the gallows; or the scene when the mother, Ada (the magnificent Carmen Roman working with material so unworthy of her great talent), both defiantly and sadly brushing the hair of her favorite daughter Pearl (an under-utilized Laura Coover) as a form of final leave-taking. 

My greatest regret is seeing the actors of the caliber of ABT’s exceptional, world-class ensemble struggle to make a difference with these poorly-wrought characterizations.  Matthew Brumlow, one of my favorite actors  in this city, demonstrate a thoughtfulness in the insipid role of the son, Dude; the great Kate Buddeke, who I’ve loved from Broadway’s Gypsy to Steppenwolf and Broadway’s Superior Donuts, injects some authentic feeling in the caricature that is the sex-starved female preacher; Roman’s presence is riveting even if she’s just standing around with a toothpick in her mouth.  ABT’s Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside, as Ellie Mae, one of the daughters, fares best, despite an unfortunate hairlip prosthetic and a scene in which she seduces her brother-in-law with so much crotch-grabbing and breast-pinching, you’d think the character was at Roscoe’s during the Grabby Awards pre-party.  She gives the molested daughter treated as burden by her family because of her physical deformity some really honest-to-goodness heartbreak.

There may have been good intentions in the decision to produce this dated play as part of the 25th year anniversary, but I don’t think it’s the type of play that will bring in the audiences that this top-notch ensemble deserve (a point painfully driven home in the performance I attended where there were only slightly more audience members than cast and crew).  I’m still a big fan and I’m confidently hopeful that in the next ABT show I go to, I won’t be scratching my head asking “Why this play and why now?” as the lights go up.

Tobacco Road is running until June 20 at the Richard Christiansen Theater, Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue.

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2 Responses to “Why This? Why Now?”

  1. Nan Says:

    This is the first review I have read that honestly describes the same things I felt when I saw Tobacco Road. Cartoonish was the word that came to my mind. Politics seem to influence the treatment both ABT and ATC receive from reviewers. Your blog is new to me and I am enjoying it and mostly in agreement with your views.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Nan. Thanks for your generous comments! My blog is written from an audience member’s standpoint, not from a theater critic’s or a practitioner’s one as many other theater blogs are. I will be very hard pressed to recommend “Tobacco Road” to any of my friends who are theater-going regulars.

    Hope to see you around these parts frequently!

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