*** (out of ****)
There's a voracious appetite down on rural Georgia's impoverished Tobacco Road in desperate need of being sated.
Not only is the hunger for nourishment among its poor souls palpable, but so, too, is an accompanying sexual thirst that seemingly can't be quenched. As presented in Cecilie Keenan's gritty and raw revival of Jack Kirkland's 1932 landmark play, that includes going to the proverbial well -- displayed here, quite literally, within James Leaming's ramshackle scenic design -- once too often.
Kirkland's script has been dusted off a bit, to be sure, but it's easy to understand why this work may have served as sustenance for the Great Depression's generation of theatregoers. While there's plenty of humor to be found, Tobacco Road paints a picture so bleak and horrific, that audiences surely couldn't help but walk away feeling a little better about their lots in life. Indeed, the show still ranks as Broadway's second longest running play of all time, clocking in at 3,182 performances spanning seven and a half years.
With raw sexual energy not merely bubbling beneath the surface but often overflowing, the play is imbued with a heightened sense of urgency and yearning. The urgency is manifested in myriad fears over loss of land, life and love, as the inhabitants along this dusty stretch yearn for something, anything, better than their miserable lives.
Keenan's deft direction and exceptional American Blues Theater ensemble members infuse this Tobacco Road with a kinetic level of energy that's remarkably contemporary and years ahead of its time (in 1935, Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly deemed the play obscene and unsuccessfully sought to have the show shut down).
A disheveled Dennis Cockrum excels as Jeeter Lester, a downtrodden and incestuous sharecropper who'd sooner sell his own daughter, if not his soul, to survive. The tremendous Carmen Roman delivers a shattering performance as his broken wife Ada, whose only wishes are for one nice dress and for her favorite daughter Pearl (Laura Coover) to escape their misery for a better life in Augusta. As the youngest of the Lesters' 17 children, Dude (Matthew Brumlow) and Ellie May (Gwendolyn Whiteside) are prime examples of the shallow end of the gene pool; both Brumlow and Whiteside are superb at finding its depths. And the pitch-perfect Kate Buddeke absolutely radiates brilliance as the proselytizing yet subversive Sister Bessie Rice, whose hands aren't necessarily of the healing variety as much as they are of the fondling kind.
Tobacco Road's timely truths and allegories prove once and for all the road to hell is paved with anything but good intentions. But the American Blues Theater certainly makes it worth our while to travel down this road most of us don't dare to tread.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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Labels: American Blues Theater, Carmen Roman, Cecilie Keenan, Chicago, Dennis Cockrum, Gwendolyn Whiteside, Jack Kirkland, James Leaming, Kate Buddeke, Matthew Brumlow, Play, Revival, The SOB Review, Tobacco Road