“Curse of the Starving Class” by Sam Shepard at Long Wharf Theatre
by Zander Opper
Long Wharf Theatre’s current production of Sam Shepard’s disturbing, yet poetical family drama, “Curse of the Starving Class,” is likely to contain moments and scenes that you have never seen onstage before. For those who are likely to attend this play, it must be stated that an actor urinates onstage in full view of the audience; a lamb is slaughtered offstage; there is full frontal male nudity; and a huge explosion occurs offstage near the conclusion, symbolizing a car being blown up. As far as shock value goes, “Curse of the Starving Class” has it in spades. And yet, if one can see beyond these scenes, at its center there is an aching tale being told of a family trying to escape its surroundings in search of a better life. As acted by a faultless cast, led by Judith Ivey, and directed by Gordon Edelstein, this production pulls no punches in presenting the messiness of Sam Shepard’s play in all its glory (so to speak). And, by being so specific in the details of the bleak day-to-day existence of this family, one can take away a larger message of the struggles of humanity and its unending quest for redemption. Suffice it is to say that “Curse of the Starving Class” is a one-of-a-kind experience and, if one can stick with it, it can prove to be quite a ride.
First presented in New York at the Public Theatre in 1978 (and starring Olympia Dukakis in the role of the mother), “Curse of the Starving Class” was the first of Sam Shepard’s cycle of family plays, and, according to the notes in the program, it is said to be at least partly autobiographical. Perhaps fittingly, the most significant character onstage is that of the son, Wesley, played unforgettably by Peter Albrink. As the play begins, his alcoholic father Weston (the excellent Kevin Tighe) has just broken down the door of their home, leaving the kitchen completely open to the outdoors. But, strangely enough, none of the characters seem to be all that disturbed by this fact; in this play, each family member is fixated more on how they will escape their existence. In particular, the mother, Ella—played by the wonderful Judith Ivey—has set her sights on selling their home and moving to Europe, without much thought of how this will affect anyone else. Completing this family unit is the daughter Emma (portrayed with an almost frighteningly determined drive by Elvy Yost), who dreams of becoming a mechanic in Mexico, although she has just barely reached puberty.
However, these characters are almost like rats in a maze, running frantically, but never managing to get anywhere. Tellingly, early on in the play, when Ella explains to her daughter Emma about how different life would be for the family in Europe, Emma remarks that “it would be the same as it is here.” When her mother tries to convince her of how much their lives would change, Emma simply states “but we’d all be the same people.” Indeed, this one line resonates throughout the play: no matter how hard these characters strive to break away, they are bound by the family dynamic that the father is an alcoholic who doesn’t much care about his wife or children and that this apathy has trickled down to the point that the family members might as well be strangers to each other.
In “Curse of the Starving Class,” there is one glimmer of hope midway through Act II, when Weston, the father, has cleaned himself up and proclaims that he has made a “fresh start” and tries to give his son fatherly advice. As an audience member, one can relax for a moment that things will finally go back to normal for this family and that all the craziness that has come before this scene can at last be overcome. But “normal” for the family that Sam Shepard has written about in this play is that of chaos and this glimpse of hope proves to be short-lived. Still, this playwright, in presenting this highly personal, highly troubled slice-of-life, can almost provide some redemption simply in the telling of this tale. In “Curse of the Starving Class,” as disturbing as a great deal of the play can be, at its very center is a heart that nonetheless can’t help but beat in hope for a better life. Tickets for the show (playing through March 10th) can be ordered by calling (203) 787-4282 or by going to http://www.longwharf.org.