"Curse of the Starving Class

By David A. Rosenberg

Enter Weston Tate, stumbling drunk, unshaven, ready for violence. “It’s like living in a den of vipers,” he shouts about the dysfunctional family of which he’s the nominal head in Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class,” now in a stinging revival at Long Wharf.

 

On a skeletal kitchen set, open to the elements, Weston, his wife Ella and their children Emma and Wesley play out a dance with familiar national themes: the promise and decline of the West, the thwarted pursuit of the American dream, consumerism, the search for the father, escape. As once described by Shepard himself, this is a barren, rootless land in which “you could hear the sound of America cracking open and crashing into the sea.”

 

The 1976 “Curse” is a symbol-heavy, fierce and poetic tragicomedy about loneliness and purposelessness. Its major metaphor, an empty refrigerator, stands for the emptiness of lives. Like the family Chekhov writes about in “The Cherry Orchard,” these people have lost touch with the land, giving in to useless materialism. Like families in Greek tragedy, a curse perpetually poisons their history.

 

Both Weston and Ella, unbeknown to each other, are selling the house. Both are being swindled by the same man, a sleek city lawyer with whom Ella is possibly having an affair and with whom she wants to abscond to Europe.

 

Having drunkenly sold his property to the smarmy owner of the Alibi Club, Weston is also being pursued by gangsters to whom he’s indebted. Meanwhile, his son, the similarly-named Wesley, not only doesn’t want to sell the property, but seeks salvation through sacrifice. “It means more than losing a house,” he says of the impending sale. “It means losing a country. It’s a zombie invasion.”

 

The fourth family member, the bright, rebellious Emma, threatens to leave by whatever means, horse or auto, for a life on the road or, perhaps, in Mexico. Just now coming into puberty, she’s tough and angry.

 

Destroying each other while destroying themselves, this family evokes unpleasantness rather than pity and terror. Audiences may react negatively to its ick factor, yet should recognize that the heightened, imagistic language, though tinged with vulgarity and absurdity, represents major work by one of our most prolific and powerful playwrights.

 

Director Gordon Edelstein wisely gives the play an existential, timeless production. Bleak it is and filled with despair, yet Edelstein brings out its humor, too, despite a desultory beginning.

 

Judith Ivey is a lusty, selfish, desperate Ella, while Kevin Tighe marvelously dissects Weston’s schizoid personality, brawling yet insightful. Peter Albrink delineates Wesley’s fury as well as his sensitivity, a man-boy so filled with frustration he’ll devour anything from raw food to his sister’s school project. As Emma, Elvy Yost is also an ambiguous figure, both sensuous and innocent.

 

Actually, the only character you can count on for consistency is the adorable lamb that sits in the kitchen, bleating as if on cue. The animal is the sanest, most empathetic critter on stage in a work that has lost none of its relevance.

 

This review first appeared in The Hour, 2/28/13

 

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