If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Shepard’s “Starving Class” Revived at Long Wharf
Long Wharf theatregoers may think they have stumbled into the Yale Repertory with Long Wharf’s current production of the absurdist classic, “Curse of the Starving Class” by Sam Shepard. The playwright’s seminal 1978 work still has the power to shock, baffle and provoke and would probably be far more at home within Yale’s edgy confines. Indeed, most of Shepard’s plays have either premiered or been produced at that New Haven venue. This is a first for Long Wharf. Will it be the last?
“Curse of the Starving Class” is part of Shepard’s “family trilogy” which includes the Pulitzer Prize winning “Buried Child” and the comic “True West”. The play concerns the beyond-dysfunctional Tate family consisting of alcoholic and abusive father, Weston (a memorable Kevin Tighe), delusional mother, Ella (Judith Ivey), daughter Emma (Elvy Yost) and son Wesley (the fearless Peter Albrink). The basic plot, if it can be called that, concerns the sale of the family farm which both parents have decided to sell to different buyers. “Starving Class” is a rich stew of metaphors, symbols and big themes but at its heart it is about family and, in particular, the inevitable conflict between father and son.
As Director Gordon Edelstein indicates in his program notes, the play is “a vision of the American West being gobbled up by avarice” and a drama in which “sins of the father are visited upon the son.” As a result, this darkly comic but ultimately tragic story is as timeless as it ever was. And given today’s economic condition, it may be even more than that. Shepard has written roles that are not easy to play and include dramatic monologues that become arias in the mouths of talented players. Late in act two Tighe does wonders with a flowing speech about family and nature while Ivey sums up the play with a vivid description of animal cruelty that stuns and lingers in the mind.
Not that “Curse of the Starving Class” will be everyone’s cup of lamb’s blood (that’s a subtle spoiler alert). The first act, in particular, does meander and not all the performances are up to the level of Tighe and Ivey. Elvy Yost’s strident playing of Emma is forced and doesn’t really ring true while Mr. Albrink, in the play’s most difficult role, still seems to be searching for the correct tone here. He is to be applauded, however, for holding his own with Mr. Tighe in several scenes and committing to the drama’s more controversial aspects: public urination and full frontal nudity are included. You’ve been warned.
Set designer Michael Yeargan has created a rural no-man’s land with a simple, decrepit family farm setting that effectively demonstrates the American dream turned sour and Fitz Patton’s sound design haunts throughout. The inclusion of an adorable live lamb in the play threatens to upstage performances several times with his casual bleating, but the actors handle the intrusion like pros. “Curse of the Starving Class” will probably not break attendance records at Long Wharf but, in what has been a very uneven season thus far, this is one of the theatre’s better efforts.
“Curse of the Starving Class” continues at Long Wharf through March 10. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.