Sam Shepard is a man of many talents. Besides being a prolific writer, poet, and one of America’s foremost playwrights, he is generally best known as an actor who received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Chuck Yeager, in “The Right Stuff.” “Curse of the Starving Class,” is one of a series of plays based on Shephard’s experiences of life in the rural West. It’s a cynical view of what the “American Dream” is like for some people in our society -- an impossible illusion. The key words here are “cynical” and “illusion.”

The play is an absorbing masterpiece rich in thought-provoking symbolism. Like Arthur Miller, Shepard’s work contains much more than what’s on the surface. For example, in “Death of a Salesman,” the broken refrigerator illustrates Willy’s struggles with aging and making a living. He laments, that as soon as the last payment is made on this major appliance, it’s automatically timed to break down. In “Curse...” the family’s empty refrigerator is symbolic of the starving, meaningless lives of the play’s characters.

At Long Wharf, Kenin Tighe magnificently portrays Weston, the good-for-nothing, alcoholic father whose character is revealed by the retelling of a gory incident he witnessed. It’s about an eagle (which happens to be an American symbol) and a sneaky cat. The two predators were on the roof, fighting over the castrated parts of a farm animal. When the eagle takes flight, the cat hangs on to the bird. Both continue to tear at each other -- even though the situation is hopeless and both animals will die in the end. This cruel exhibition parallels Weston’s life. Preyed upon by crooked land dealers, he takes a chance on becoming rich and ends up with debts that he cannot afford to pay.

Judith Ivey’s “Ella,” the selfish, conniving wife and cold mother of two teenagers, is as common and flighty as they come. Not telling her husband, who has plans of his own, she wants to sell the broken down, prairie house and move to Europe (a place she’s only read about). Her teenage children “...can come if they want to,” she says, matter-of-factly. While Ella knows nothing about land values, she repeats what she has heard from her sly, real estate lawyer: “...banks are loaning money right, left and center…people are building…everyone wants a piece of land. It’s the only sure investment. It can never depreciate like a car or washing machine,” she proclaims. Written in l978, these words should sound familiar to investors who recently lost their savings.

Daughter, Emma, nicely played by Elvy Yost, has biologically become a woman. After looking into the empty refrigerator, she is beginning to question whether her family is among the starving class of people -- which the mother promptly denies. The mother also denies eating a chicken Emma had prepared for a 4-H project. A family argument ensues and Emma’s posters are deliberately peed upon by her impulsive brother, Wesley (Peter Albrink). The mother finishes the last bit of food in the house and remains oblivious to the scene that has taken place.

For Emma, the only character who sees things realistically, life is totally unpredictable and she needs to escape too -- but how? -- to where? An invisible curse seems to hang over the heads of everyone in this barren house. As circumstances close in on him, the starving Wesley dramatically escapes in his own, unique way. What follows is a tragic, surrealistic ending.

Shepard forces you to think about the so-called, “American Dream.” The endless “land of equal opportunities” we have been taught to believe, may be full of false illusions. Some people strive for a better life, yet they barely make it from day to day. Those are the ones that are easily sold a false bill of goods by greedy predators. It’s a cynical view about the inescapable lives of generations of American people.

The play’s entire cast is top-notch under the excellent direction of Gordon Edelstein, who keeps the tension building to the very end. Lighting by James Ingalls and the bare, kitchen in the middle of the desert, by Michael Yeargan, mirror the emptiness of the inhabitants’ lives. Aside from some frontal, male nudity, which is not needed for shock treatment, “Curse of the Starving Class” may be the best play of this season. You should definitely, see it!

Plays to March 10. Tickets: 203 787 4282

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