Sam Shepard;s Spellbinding Portrayal of a Cursed Family
By Amy J. Barry
“Harrowin” and “brutal” are among the words fellow theatergoers used to describe Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” at Long Wharf Theatre. One person was incensed that the theater produced the play at all.
Granted, Shepard’s Obie Award-winning work is deeply disturbing and highly provocative, plumbing the depths of the human condition, while leaving very little off limits.
The dark family drama is also masterfully written, exquisitely crafted, and in many instances downright scathingly funny. And Long Wharf should be commended for taking the risk to present the envelope-pushing modern classic.
First produced in 1978, “Curse of the Starving Class” is part of a trilogy -- including “Buried Child” and “True West” -- in which Shepard shatters the myth of the American Dream and delves deeply into his complex relationship with an alcoholic father.
Last performed in New Haven 12 years ago at Yale Repertory Theatre, this is the first Shepard play Long Wharf has ever produced.
Gordon Edelstein’s direction is tight as a drum, the tension unwavering. A superb ensemble unflinchingly takes on an unpalatable cast of characters with energy and intensity.
The action all takes place in a shabby, barebones kitchen on the Tate family farm in rural California that set designer Michael Yeargan has chosen to leave wall-less, surrounded by fallow fields and nothing on the horizon but blackness.
The play opens with Ella (Tony Award-winning Judith Ivey) in giant rollers and a terrycloth robe frying up breakfast on the battered stove as though she hasn’t got a care in the world. Meanwhile, Wesley (Peter Albrink), her disturbed teenage son, rebuilds the front door to nowhere that Weston (Kevin Tighe), the absent father, demolished in one of his drunken rages the night before.
Ella tells Wesley about her delusional plans to sell the family farm and run off to Europe without informing her husband.
Younger daughter Ella (Elvy Yost) enters next -- in search of a chicken she has been saving for a 4H Club project and goes ballistic when she realizes it’s no longer in the refrigerator. The queen of denial, Ella pretends she has no idea what happened to the chicken and in the midst of Emma’s tantrum, Wesley urinates (yep) all over his sister’s 4H poster.
Within the first few minutes of the play, with minimal but very carefully chosen brushstrokes, Shepard has painted a clear picture of one of the most screwed-up families you’ll ever meet, in financial ruin, ravaged by the effects of alcoholism. And you find yourself nervously laughing and feeling guilty for finding it all so terrifyingly funny.
Each scene that follows fills in the bigger picture with vivid details and mounting tension.
Weston isn’t introduced until much later in Act I after his character has already been established through the eyes of his family -- another wonderful aspect of Shepard’s writing. Unbeknownst to Ella, Weston has already sold the farm to get out of the massive debt he’s acquired.
The empty refrigerator is a significant metaphor. It’s constantly being open and shut by all the Tates, as though when they reopen it, food will magically appear and they can avoid admitting that they have joined the ranks of the “starving class.”
The most challenging role is the verging-on-psychotic Wesley, who is both the most attuned to and the most damaged by his family of origin. Albrink creates repulsion and sympathy for his character in equal measure.
Ivey is on top of her game as the magical thinking, tough, and bitingly funny Ella.
Yost is well cast as the big-dreaming Emma; making plans to escape in order to survive, although there is no escaping this nightmare.
Tighe is both scary and affable as Weston—never going over the top as the clichéd drunk and just as believable in his final state of sobriety.
John Procaccino fits the bill as Taylor; the smarmy corrupt lawyer/land speculator -- playing on the family’s naivete and desperation for his own gain.
Last but not least is the adorable Edie the lamb, who baaed on cue the night we attended the show -- and comes out for curtain call unscathed, reassuring the audience that he wasn’t butchered in a grotesquely bloody scene toward the end of the play.
If you’re a fatalist, an existentialist, or an absurdist, you may find yourself less unnerved by Shepard’s vision than someone who wants to leave the theater with, at the very least, the smallest ray of hope, the tiniest promise that we can overcome our past, no matter how dysfunctional.
“Curse of the Starving Class” is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through March 10. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.