Cracker kingdom

For most baby boomers, Tobacco Road was one of those books which, if encountered at all, was found in dad's dresser drawer buried beneath the boxer shorts and the scented, monogrammed hankies. Its lurid cover--usually a WTV (white trash vixen) in a dirty, strategically decaying dress--made you ponder the mysteries of adulthood while stirring up a strange, warmish feeling just north of the thighs.

Erskine Caldwell's 1932 shocker is probably even less familiar to today's younger set. Only a true trivia-meister would know that Jack Kirkland's stage adaptation of the novel still holds the Broadway record for most performances of a nonmusical--3,186 straight over eight years.

The play, which concerns a poor Georgia farmer and his 17 children, drew the wrath of Southern conservatives, who saw it as an assault on the image of poor but noble Southern sons of the soil. An enraged Georgia congressman went so far as to denounce it on the floor of the House, claiming that he knew families with 22 children who "were all refined, God-fearing citizens." On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mae West, and J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, came out in support of the play.

Oddly enough, Tobacco Road was first performed as a drama, not a comedy. A brief recital of the plot indicates why. The story concerns Jeeter Lester, a lazy, lecherous, larcenous bag of scum who will do anything to keep his small farm, even though he doesn't raise any crops on it. His kin, who are only slightly more sentient than the tribe of anthropoids who stumbled on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, pursue their own puerile, prurient interests and are little better than their dad.

Intended to be "searing" or "revelatory," the play is so over-the-top it's funny. That's the way audiences took it in the '30s, and that's the way Theatre Three is staging it today.

It's a good choice, because Tobacco Road feels surprisingly like a piece of zany, contemporary sketch comedy à la "Saturday Night Live" or "SCTV." The play is completely pitiless and unflinching in its satire, and about as politically correct as Daniel Carver, the suave Georgia spokesman for Nazism who gets frequent airtime on Howard Stern's radio show and who is himself a direct spiritual descendant of Jeeter Lester.

The Lesters belie liberal notions about the deserving poor. This crew is too lazy, too stupid, and, funniest of all, too thoroughly self-satisfied to want to improve. It's disturbing to note that the Lesters are based on the real redneck family that Caldwell's do-gooder dad attempt-ed to reform without success. There is really nothing that can be done with them, short of confiscating their babies at birth.

Jeeter is the fountain from which all this ignorance flows. He's a great American ogre of the stage, expertly played by Theatre Three veteran Hugh Feagin. Those who haven't seen Feagin in other Theatre Three productions (he was excellent as an arrogant surgeon in Arthur Miller's The Price last year) might think he specializes in playing debased Georgia crackers. Feagin capers, cackles, whines, wheedles, scratches, and simpers his way through the part, embodying the poor man who will use religion, pity, stealth, or treachery to achieve his ends.

It's a finely textured performance that at first has you partially liking Jeeter for his corn-pone, Jed Clampettlike mannerisms, but which eventually reveals him to be a philanderer, a thief, a coward, and an incestuous predator.

Sharon Bunn, another talented Theatre Three regular, makes a nice segue from her recent role as Margaret Dumont in T3's production of the Marx Brothers' farce Cocoanuts. As Jeeter's wife Ada, she is the only character on stage with any sort of redeeming motivation. She'd like to see to it that Luv, one of her sons-in-law, doesn't beat up her daughter Pearl more than he feels he must.

Luv, nicely played as a sullen but yearning dolt by Wiley Flowers, is upset because Pearl won't speak to him and won't give him his "rights" as a husband. "She does cry when I beat her," he says, "but I don't call that talking."

Even Ada, however, isn't above theft, adultery, and psychological child-abuse.

Lanell Pena makes the most of her part as the almost mute, sexually combustible Ellie May Lester, a moron with a cleft palate who also is the family beast of burden. She's particularly funny in a seduction scene that has her revealing her charms in some mighty peculiar angles.

Terry Dobson as Dude Lester and Liz Mikel (an actress who can sing up a storm, though she doesn't get to here) as Sister Bessie Rice, also turn in comically deft performances, and Adair Aherns as silent, shriveled Grandma Lester, is terrific as a crone's crone.

All the action takes place at the Lesters' faded, tumble-down shack, which set designer Harland Wright has fashioned with his usual acumen and eye for detail. Old washboards, a broken pump, a rotting fence, and falling slats perfectly place the Lesters in their white-trash kingdom.

Director Thurmon Moss, frequently seen as an actor at Theatre Three, does not back off from the coarse mockery that flows through this material. He encourages the actors to tap into the Swiftian venom that Caldwell obviously felt for these characters, and to stoop as low as they wish to get Caldwell's point across. To the discomfiture of some audience members, the play includes more genital groping than a Michael Jackson video.

Speaking of the audience, it's interesting to note that this material, so dated in some ways, is still unsettling enough to provoke mixed reactions from theatergoers. Are we supposed to laugh at the Lesters, find them appalling, or both? The audience isn't sure. Some people guffaw when Jeeter gropes his own daughter, while others turn away in disgust. As Voltaire remarked, "To the thinking man, life is a comedy; to the feeling man, a tragedy." Caldwell, one surmises, was a thinking man and a feeling man.

Tobacco Road runs through February 11 at Theatre Three. Call 871-3300.


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