Sam Shepard's "Starving Class" Sends Contemporary Chills In Long Wharf Production
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: Sam Shepard's “Curse of the Starving Class” at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre.
First impressions: Bad loans, real estate speculation, endless debt: The troubles facing the feuding Tate family -- calling this brood “dysfunctional” would give it far too much credit -- bear stunning similarities to contemporary times. Director Gordon Edelstein places Shepard's slightly revised 1978 play in a kind of stark, bleak, existential world, all the better to consider the playwright's helpless, hopeless take on the American Dream.
There's grim humor, cowboy poetry and several solid performances but the production is rough around the edges and lacks an accumulative force. Still, “the whole fandango,” as one character says, manages to show true grit, some striking theatricality and...er...an abundance of food for thought.
What’s it about?: “What kind of family is this?” asks exasperated tomboy daughter Emma (Elvy Yost) to her lazy, disinterested, disenchanted mother Ella (Judith Ivey) who is holding down what is left of the ramshackle family fort, after her drunken husband Weston (Kevin Tighe) destroyed the front door and disappeared into the California desert night. Meanwhile, son Wesley (Peter Albrink) is in a daze, living between fear and disgust. Forces outside set designer Michael Yeargan’s simplest suggestion of a home include a shady lawyer (John Procaccino) and creepy low-lifes (Ben Becher, Clark Middleton) who threaten the family’s dreams of existence or escape.
Sounds like Shepard, all right: The Tates are a kind of anti-Joads, that noble clan from “The Grapes of Wrath.” This means characters in this symbolic laden play are living in their own private I-don’t-knows, schemes implode -- and explode, pets perish and continuing familial delusions is the real curse in life. Oh, and naturalism is definitely not to be on this theatrical menu.
Despite protestations from Ella who says “We’re not rich but we’re not poor,” family members keep opening the refrigerator door only to gaze into its emptiness, seemingly starved for something that isn’t there but should be (sense of self, specialness, a satisfying life?)
Sound depressing: Think of it more as a tragi-farce with ironic, offbeat and deadpan humor. The only true innocent is the live lamb on stage.
Lamb?: Son Wesley brings the maggot-infested critter into the Tate kitchen for warmth -- but there’s no safe haven with this Shepard.
No animals were harmed during the production?: Harmed? The damn lamb upstaged the actors with its bleating and friskiness. One longed for the silence of the...well, never mind. I couldn’t wait until it was slaughtered.
Pity the actors: But you’ve got some fine pros here. Ivey gets the biggest laughs of the show with her outrageous mother who dreams of a secret windfall from the sale of its misbegotten home so she can ditch everyone for a ticket to Europe. Tighe is terrifically fierce as the bilious, drunken patriarch, giving real cause for son Wesley to cower in fear, loathing and longing. His turnabout to a chirpy American optimist is also disturbingly well done.
Who will like it?: Shepard fans. Judith Ivey fans, too.
Who won’t?: Wall Street speculators, PETA, those who expect real kitchen sinks in their kitchen sink dramas.
For the kids?: Precocious and cynical teens may relate to the cracked American Dream theme. But parents should note that there is some non-sexual nudity and one character pulls out a (prop, but realistic-looking) penis to urinate on stage on a 4-H poster.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less; For Shepard’s twisted Tates, it’s “The Hunger Games” of the soul in an uneven but intriguing production
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: You have to be struck by the talk in this 1978 play of what would be root causes of the economic collapse 30 years later. Listen: “I was in hock up to my elbows. See, I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. I figured that’s why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn’t be so generous if they didn’t figure you had it comin’ in….So I went along with it...They all want you to borrow anyhow...The whole thing’s geared to invisible money…So I figured if that’s the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go in debt...if all of it is numbers? If it’s all an idea and nothing’s really there...I just played ball.” Wow.
The basics: The show plays through March 10 at Long Wharf Theatre's main stage at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission. Information at 203-787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.