‘Curse of the Starving Class’ by Sam Shepard at the Signature Theatre
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class which appeared at the Public Theatre and won an Obie for Best New American Play during the 1976-1977 season, has been revived a number of times and is currently part of the Signature Theatre’s legacy program. Shepard often chronicled his family history weaving themes in and out of his “Family Tragedies.” These include dramas that are dynamic, intimate, intense dark plays: the titular play reviewed here, Buried Child (1979) True West (1980) Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
These dramas with often searing poetic elements and unusual twists, feature violent, dysfunctional familial relationships which are borderline insane but human. The emphasis on the destructive nerve endings of the human condition makes them sardonic and devastatingly humorous. The characters are representative of us, every-women, every-man despite their demographics. In the inner soul of the individuals, there is the same fear, want, loneliness and partition from their families that make them real, heartfelt and tragic. Their human “ilk,” is horrific yet understandable. Shepard’s characterization logic and Director Terry Kinney’s guidance of the actors to achieve these manifestation in this production are just superb.
In this first of the family series, Curse of the Starving Class, we note how a family rooted in farming and the land in rural California attempts to wrangle with their own emotional and psychological demons that have provided a wayward leading inheritance that they must either overcome or succumb to. Though each has the ambition to improve themselves, like Chekhovian characters who are out of place and time, they harbor their dreams while creating elaborate networks of self-destruction that divert their will and thwart their ability to manifest their goals into realities.
By the time Shepard’s characters amass the will and strength to better themselves, they select the wrong path. All ends in failure. Indeed, their own blood family members sabotage any possibility of their improvement. Worsening the situation the saboteurs explode with resentment-filled, passive aggressive rages that harm and incite the downward-spiraling over and over again.
The drama opens with a catastrophic explosion. The outer structure of the house splits apart. It is a symbolic rendering of an ancient and ancestral lesion that is ever-present in the bloodline of the family and can never be healed because there is no attempt to seek an intervention. This explosion reflects the curse of the family that they choose not to expurgate or exorcise because they don’t know how, nor do they have the tools to stop its cyclical repetition. The breaking apart of the house portends the threatening doom for each of the family members.
The lesion/curse is within each of them and spreads the horrific, hurtful, damage outward and among them. This trip wire provokes the other family members’ sadism and from day to night, torment and abuse infects like a poison (Weston, the father discusses this in a central aria) and destroys everything in its path.
In the family. which has managed to share the same space because they are not there together for one whole hour, there are a mother and father and two teenage children. The younger one is the intelligent Emma. The electric Lizzy Declement gives a performance that develops Emma from hope and contentment to resentment, rage, rebellion and spiritual devolvement. The older sibling is the dutiful Wesley who intends to maintain the farm and keep it a going concern despite the worsening conditions Weston’s addictions create. Wesley and Emma have hopes and dreams, though they do not necessarily include the family.
Emma’s efforts creating a school project indicate that she has ambition and the determination to “be somebody” in her life, if she can ever get away from the nullifying family and farm. After her mother and brother destroy her school project, she runs away on a horse that her mom says is crazy. She returns covered in mud and humiliated desperation. The horse (as emblematic crazy as her family) threw her off and dragged her “through the mud.”
This symbolic action forebodes how the family will treat her for attempting to rise above. After this, she makes negative, impulsive choices which will only exacerbate further damage. She and the other family members are practiced at this circularity, directing their decisions and actions from rage, depression and panic, rather than hope and peace.
Wesley (the dynamic and authentic Gilles Geary) who at the outset of the play and through the second act is trying to repair the door his father bashed in during a drunken, “out-of-control” binging rage-on, cares about the farm, the animals and the security of the family. His assiduous attempt to rebuild the door represents his desire to keep out animal or human interlopers and marauders who would steal from them or usurp the inheritance of the land which father Weston’s alcoholism threatens to encourage.
Weston (the superb David Warshofsky) an alcoholic, cannot lift the farm into thriving, organized prosperity. His relationship with his wife is abusive. Weston emphasizes he is a killer in his descriptions to his son about his role as a bombing pilot during the war. Most probably he is suffering from PTSD, though at the time Shepard wrote the play, this condition of returning combat VETS was never acknowledged. However, his entire destructive, hell-raising, yelling fits indicate he is most likely suffering from it. The culture didn’t help him after the war, and it, along with his negative learned behaviors contribute to the root of his self-hatred, despair and inability to get out from under his depressive, alcoholic malaise and lethargy.
Like the other members of her family the mother Ella (Maggie Siff portrays the mother with nuanced reality) negotiates the tense, hyper-aggressive atmosphere that each of them creates. She augments it by living in the fantasy of selling the property and running away. As her business person who would handle her affairs, she chooses a shyster who intends to defraud her.
The key factors that would make her motherly, accountability, a tidy home with food in the refrigerator, nurturing concern about each of the family members are absent. The refrigerator is empty and as she and the others discuss whether they are a part of the “starving class,” we understand that the empty refrigerator is symbolic. The culture at large deprives them of honor and respect and is the antithesis of soul nurturing. Thus, with their own inner weaknesses, it is nearly impossible for them to care for and nurture each other. Like her daughter who intends to escape, Ella plans to sell the house and take the kids to Europe, as fantastical as this dream is.
As Ella attempts to make arrangements behind Weston’s back, Weston, too, in a drunken fit thinks he makes a deal to sell the property and get a lot of money for it, but he is being defrauded. Wesley understands that the predators that want to buy their property will wreck the land, develop it and ruin its beauty while giving them a pittance, if that. The developers represent the meretricious empty mores influenced by the take over of corporate consumerism. And this consumeristic “curse” has displaced the country’s citizens from searching for the more profound values of life and has alienated them from their purpose and place in the universe, replacing it with being the slaves/pawns of wanton corporate America.
Thus, the land that once might have nurtured Weston and the family for a few generations, has been subject to Weston’s inner plague from the war which he attempts to ameliorate with alcohol, but can’t. And he receives no help from the greedy economic predators who see a mark and intend to take advantage of him.
The culture has failed him on many counts that he hasn’t the “where-with-all” to protect himself from the buzzards-the lawyers and real estate developers and thugs (Andrew Rothenberg, Esau Pritchett) who have entangled Weston with loans that they will extort and bully back from him. Any money that Weston gets from the sale of the property once his debts are paid off and the developers or other predators are done with him, will result in a negative balance.
Thematically, this production soars for its reality, authenticity and raw power. The Scenic Design by Julian Crouch is truly amazing in its functional and thematic purpose. The refrigerator is filthy; one wonders that the food kept in it is sanitary when it is eventually stocked. This adds to our horrified amazement when the starving Wesley ravages all the food in it after he kills the lamb with the intention of eating it. Indeed, his starvation as a member of the “starving class” represents the emotional hunger all of the family experience that manifests as ravenous physical hunger.
Though he and the others complain about not having food in the refrigerator, this “starvation” is not literal, it is soul starvation, spiritual starvation, cultural starvation. The society at large is responsible for this as Weston states and as Ella infers in her desire to go to Europe to escape; indeed, Europe is a place that is culturally rich and can provide unique stimulation.
Sadly, their daily lives have little spiritual or psychic sustenance and when Wesley and Emma attempt to satisfy their inner longings with hope, the other family members come around and either take it away (as Weston/Ella do in attempting to sell the farm) or piss on it (literally, in the case of Emma’s project which Wesley ruins with his urine).
Shephard shows that his characters are so deprived and so used to being deprived and “starving” they starve themselves and each other of love, familial companionship, warmth, compliments, joy, humor, the list is long and comprehensive. As a representative family in this country after WWII, they manifest the status quo. And this is so regardless of economic class, though Shepard uses them, a lower middle class family, to illustrate his themes which actually transcend class when they are viewed from a more profound level.
The acting of the principals is spot-on, moment-to-moment. All of them hit the bulls-eye as they evoke our empathy, pathos, fear, disapproval, shock and horror. The climax is particularly upsetting, but it is also understandable. All are responsible and have contributed to each other’s demise. As they pursue their own desperate goals and desires to escape from their inner masochistic, nihilistic impulses, they collapse in on themselves. Because they are not nurtured to do so, they never reach out to help or to receive help from those who might take them out of their misery.
Terry Kinney guides this production meticulously and has found the right artistic designers to collaborate with to portray Shepard’s tragic almost nihilistic vision from which there is no escape. The costume design by Sarah J. Holden, the lighting design by Natasha Katz, the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeed (just wow) and William Berloni’s lamb round out this production and do justice to Shepard’s legacy as a playwright uncovering the underbelly of this nation’s ills in this family microcosm.
Curse of the Starving Class runs with one intermission at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th. It has been extended until 2nd June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.