A “Curse” Resonates Anew

T. Charles Erickson PhotoWhy would Long Wharf revive Sam Shepard’s 35-year-old “Curse of the Starving Class” now?

Could it be irresistible irony about the real estate bubble?

“Banks are loaning money right, left and center,” the matriarch of the family on stage says. “Small family loans. People are building. Everyone wants a piece of land. It’s the only sure investment. It can never depreciate like a car or washing machine.”

Or maybe it’s this anti-corporate screed, straight out of the Romney campaign video, spoken by a slimy real estate lawyer:

“You may not realize it, but there’s corporations behind me! Executive management! Banks. People of influence. People with ambition who realize the importance of investing in the future. Of building this country up, not tearing it down. You people carry on as though the whole world revolved around your petty little existence.”

Or could it be that after its original run at New York’s Public Theater, we’ve finally caught up to the notion that for the Starving Class in the US of A, there is no future. That the sheep, so sweetly interviewed on this site recently by Alan Appel, that clichéd symbol of innocence (spoiler alert, but you’d have likely guessed anyway) dies a bloody death in the end?

The show opens, literally, to a smashed front door, allowing us to enter the destructive world of the kind of family we now refer to as white trash. Family life centers around the empty refrigerator. What, has this family no nourishment?

“We’re not the Starving Class,” they repeatedly state. Coulda fooled us. Starving in more ways than one.

Yes, Curse of the Starving Class—which opened this week at Long Wharf Theatre and runs through March 10—is a play built on obvious metaphors. Followed too often by monologues that explain said metaphors. It is a show that seems more naturally read than acted, peppered with quotable passages (see above) and no shortage of Big Ideas.

But it is roused to life through black humor – plenty of it—and Sam Shepard’s strange, compelling surrealistic bent (not to mention Gordon Edelstein’s tragicomically apt directing).

It’s hard to pull off a show in which the only likeable character interjects a haphazard “baa” at random moments. But there’s something familiar about this dysfunctional family, even if you didn’t grow up, as Shepard did, with an alcoholic father.

The conceit is that mom Ella and Dad Weston (the drunk in question) both arrive separately to the solution that the American Dream lies in selling their house and land. Dad needs to pay off his stupor-incurred debts; Mom dreams of escaping to Europe. Son Wesley struggles with his identity: is he the man of the house, the protector, fixing the bashed-in door, or the shit with dad-infused DNA who pisses on his sister’s 4-H-like poster project on how to butcher a chicken? (If nothing else, it’s worth an evening at the Long Wharf just to hear the gasps when Peter Albrink, as Wesley, whips it out.) Wesley’s a bit like an ant in amber: In 1978, the angry underclass blamed the bankers. Thirty trickle-down years later, Wesley would be leading a Tea Party parade.

Generally, I’m no fan of star casting, but in this case Judith Ivey’s Ella is the real deal. Worn out, cynical, desperate for any lifeline that would offer a shred of hope, Ivey nails her character in her walk and the way she sits. I can hear her weathered voice in my head re-reading her lines in my notes as I write. Kevin Tighe’s shit-for-brains mean drunk dad falls asleep on the kitchen table and wakes up transformed and sober. He pulls off what could be a jarring transformation with some skill as we’re left to wonder: what’s left when the family no longer has his wretchedness to revolve around? Not much, it turns out.

Shepard’s got a bastard’s view of the world, and there is no redemption in the end – only more metaphor, a beautifully rendered story about an airborne fight between an eagle and a cat. Neither can win: The cat’s claws cling to the eagle for life, and as a result the bird can’t shake the cat.
You might leave the theater, as I did, shaking your head about some narrative flaws and heavy-handedness, but the story stays with you. And, as much as you might want to, it’s hard to argue with its conclusion. Especially now.

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