Leave it to Justin Tanner to take on an old warhorse as dated as this one and find a new comedic approach to freshen it up and make it work again. Serving as director here, Tanner also admits he's taken a few liberties with the text, as well.
Erskine Caldwell's novel put the desperately itinerant Lester family smack-dab in the middle of the rural South during the Great Depression. But here things have changed a bit: "Place: A Red State; Time: Now," the program proclaims, and Tanner brings Jack Kirkland's 1933 play of Caldwell's tale screaming into modern times in a big way. The Lesters have a "Bush/Cheney '04" poster slapped on the side of their outhouse; son Dude (Todd Lowe) wears an O.C. basketball T-shirt; and runaway daughter Pearl (Crystal Day) now works at Wal-Mart.
David Wells and Lin Shaye prove a perfect team as the shiftless Jeeter Lester and his downtrodden but feisty wife. While managing to exist within the wonderfully skewed vision of their director, Wells and Shaye maintain a sense of reality and even manage to bring a strange nobility to their roles. More than anyone on this stage, however, the charismatic sprite Lowe brings the cartoonlike Dude to life without ever resorting to caricature, also making some darned authentic countrified twanging emanate live from his trusty Dobro guitar.
Caldwell had great sympathy for these people. His novel was meant to be a work of social protest, as his personal outrage at the conditions in which underprivileged Americans lived in the '30s was adopted early in his life. Still, he refused to sentimentalize their poverty, as so many other works of protest did during that era. Tanner obviously gets this, and the effect is surprising. Although the laughs are always broad and plenty in Tanner-land, there's little doubt nothing's changed much for the have-nots in our otherwise advantaged country, only making the timing of this presentation, less than two weeks after the societal wake-up call left by Hurricane Katrina, all the more poignant.
"Tobacco Road," presented by Third Stage Company at Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sep. 10-Oct. 9. $13-18. (818) 842-4755.