Curse of the Starving Class

By Diana Insolio

The dysfunctional family at the center of Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class”, now at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, may not be starving, but they sure are hungry for something -- anything -- that will change their constricted lives. Stuck on a small farm in California, the family consists of a blustery, alcoholic and debt-ridden father, Weston, (played by Kevin Tighe), a ditzy, vaguely concerned but ineffective mother, Ella, (played with comic aplomb by the award-winning Judith Ivey), a quirky, oddly expressionless son, Wesley (Peter Albrink), and a plucky, androgynous daughter, Emma (Elvy Yost), a 4-H Club member who by play’s end has decided that the only reasonable career is a life of crime.


The play takes place in the family kitchen, before a dingy and chronically empty refrigerator, Shepard’s apt metaphor for this family’s famished souls. The set, skillfully designed by Michael Yeargan, is made up of the sparsely furnished kitchen with no walls separating it from the surrounding farmland (the soil constructed cleverly of pulverized cork). Wesley is cleaning up the remains of the front door, broken in the wee hours of the morning by his father, Weston, who stumbled home after a night of drinking and found himself locked out by Ella. Ella, fixing herself a breakfast of bread and bacon foraged from the otherwise provision-less fridge, explains to her perturbed son that she had to call the cops on his father because she feared for her life. “I wasn’t sure who was at the door]” Ella explains. “That was the frightening part. I could smell him right through the door, but I wasn’t sure.” He smelled of booze, she explains, “like some rank old animal everyone’s forgot.”


Animals both real and metaphorical play a large part in this play about the selling of the West to land developers. A chicken carefully raised by 12-year-old Emma for her annual 4-H project has been accidently (read negligently) cooked by Mom. Weston brings a lamb suffering from maggots into the kitchen for warmth. Emma, off-stage, is dragged in the mud by the family’s horse, but climbs back on later in the play to shoot up a bar. And Weston recounts the haunting image of a mid-air fight-to-the-death that he has witnessed between an eagle and a tom cat.


The broken front door doesn’t matter much to Ella, whose soulless life on the farm is about to become a thing of the past, or so she hopes. She has arranged to sell the farm to developers with the help of an “attorney friend,” (played convincingly by John Procaccino) who claims that the deed requires only Ella’s signature because Weston is legally incompetent. Ella wants to travel to Europe, which she describes as  “A whole new place. A whole new world.”  It doesn’t take long for Wesley, who is against the idea of moving off the farm (“This is where I live,” he protests), to realize that the “attorney friend” behind Ella’s plan is the same scoundrel who sold the family a worthless plot of desert land some time ago. Unbeknownst to Ella, Weston has also sold the farm in an attempt to pay his debts. In one of the most moving scenes of the play, he realizes that, having spent his life moving West, he has landed on the edge of the Pacific Ocean; there is no place else to escape to, no life but the one he has created for himself. If he cleans up his act he might be able to turn the farm around and offer his family a fresh start. But it is too late for that. His debtors are after him, and his parenting skills have left an indelible mark on his son who has begun to take on Weston’s worst characteristics.


The play, a tragedy with farcical elements, complex characters and lyrical soliloquies, is one of the finest explorations of the American experience, but it is difficult to stage convincingly. Actors must be able to communication a sense of personal isolation and spiritual death but with enough yearning vitality to keep the audience connected. Only Judith Ivey succeeds in this regard. Peter Albrink plays the part of Wesley as if asleep, his occasional flashes of anger unconvincing because they lack emotional depth. The audience must be offered something other than somnambulance to remain interested in a character’s plight. Kevin Tighe offers an interesting Weston, but his delivery lacks inflection, and he never seems to want to make meaningful contact with his son, even when he is sharing with him his redemptive vision of a profitable farm. Elvy Yost plays Emma immaturely, as if she has not yet grown out of the terrible twos. Emma’s gumption, her resolve to escape to a better world, and her tragically bad choices, are not entirely believable because they are conveyed at a plaintive high pitch accompanied by childish physical antics. That said, the acting is more than passable, and the production, especially the second act, is an enjoyable opportunity to experience Shepard’s great work.


Curse of the Starving Class, Long Wharf  Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT, (203) 787-4282. Through March 10th.

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