Who could have imagined that Sam Shepard's raw, raucous and rewardingly rambling "Curse of the Starving Class" would maintain its immediacy and relevance nearly 40 years after he wrote the play?
As evidenced by Long Wharf Theatre's Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein's gripping and well-cast production of this frequently anarchic work, "Curse" comes across as a play as fresh and exciting as any work written in recent years. The play's critical take on such topics as the American dream, our country's obsessive frontier fantasies and the ability of the family to be a source of pain and dysfunction still has the ability to challenge our thinking and confront our collective mythology.
Astoundingly, this is the Long Wharf Theatre's first ever production of a Shepard play in its 48-year history, one marked with landmark world premieres, frequent New York transfers, and original, cutting-edge work. Edelstein reveals in his program notes that he's always wanted to direct this particular Shepard and it turns out he may have picked the best possible time, as the country recovers from a vituperative election campaign that extolled "family values," while enduring an ongoing economic tragedy that condemns millions to a lower standard of living. In addition, our current national discussion about gun control reminds us of our country's lingering connection to a "wild west" sensibility and a frontier sense of individuality. Shepard, however, tempers his take on the fractures in American life with an abundant humor--most of it black and ironic--that makes his dark observations even more discerning.
"Curse of the Starving Class" is clearly a family saga, in which every member is out for him or herself, and alliances are temporary and virtually impossible. It's also a generational story, in which irresponsible parents are constantly at odds with their children who find themselves hopelessly adrift in a world in which only the dishonest, selfish and cruel seem to thrive.
Shepard's play is set in the crumbling kitchen of a family farm in rural California, which Edelstein has ingeniously chosen to situate on a vast, arid desert that appears to extend infinitely past the back and side walls of the theater itself, thanks to Michael Yeargan's clever set design. His kitchen rises out of a small patch of linoleum in the midst of this sandy space with a table and chairs, a few aged appliances and the merest suggestions of windows and doors anchoring the central playing space. This design connects the more contemporary story with memories of the 1930's dust bowl, whose victims sought refuge in California, while underscoring the emptiness and rootlessness of the family depicted onstage. And don't be surprised to encounter tiny mounds of sand as you climb the stairs to your seats in the theater.
Edelstein's excellent cast is led by Judith Ivey, as the frazzled and put-upon matriarch Elly, and Kevin Tighe as the alcoholic and neglectful father, Weston. They share a believable chemistry that grounds their contentiously ironic relationship, especially as it is revealed that they have separately been trying to sell the family homestead out from under the other family members.
Ivey imbues her character with just the right amount of light-hearted humor that rescues Elly from being exclusively a vindictive shrew, while investing her with a naivete that makes her more sympathetic than one might initially suspect. Tighe is equally effective as the humorously belligerent drunk who just before the play opens has torn down the front door and threatened his wife. After spending a good portion of the first act passed out face up on a table while the action spirals around him, Tighe demonstrates a newly-found control and austerity in the second act, as the now-sober father tries to return to his family's good graces.
As the couple's two children, Wesley and Ellie, Peter Albrink and Elvy Yost are a revelation and a delight in their Long Wharf debuts. Albrink is the epitome of the lackadaisical lost soul filled with a mixture of contempt and anomie, while Yost is all blunted tomboy action, screeching out her frustration with a dream of running far away the moment she achieves the age of independence.
Even the three smaller roles have been expertly cast, including the wiry, unforgettable Clark Middleton as an over-anxious bar owner who thinks he's hoodwinked Weston out of his home and later as a black-clad, carefree loan shark. Ben Becher is fine as both a stolid but clueless policeman and the loan shark's self-satisfied partner in crime. John Procaccino is suitably oily as a con man trying to wrap a clueless Ella around his finger. Be sure to watch for his stealthy baby-stepped exit from the family's home when the authorities unexpectedly arrive.
Noted Broadway animal trainer William Berloni has marshaled the little lamb who plays a crucial role in the proceedings, although the penned cutie threatens to steal the show with its unscripted bleats. The cast bravely speaks over and around the animal's antics, although Tighe was able to work one of the little guy's tiny outbursts into one of his monologues.
Clint Ramos has dressed the characters in unobtrusive character appropriate costumes, while the combination of James F. Ingalls' lighting, Fitz Patton's sound and Doug Wieselman's original music help to create an atmosphere of contained pressure that undergirds the sense of absurdity and desperation felt by the main characters.
With the sturdy job he has done on "Curse," it is obvious that Edelstein has a genuine connection with Shepard's work, particularly the works that date from the late 70's and early 80's. I'd be interested in seeing his take on Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" or "Buried Child," as Edelstein seems so clearly sensitive to the subtexts in the playwright's work.
Theatergoers can catch "Curse of the Starving Class" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre through March 10. For tickets and information, call the box office at 203.787.4282 or 800.782-8497 or visit the Long Wharf website at www.longwharf.org.