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.
Edie Falco and Michael McKean as Rumored Lovers in ‘The True’ by Sharr White, Directed by Scott Elliott
During my undergraduate and graduate college days and afterward (1970s), I lived in Albany, New York, the setting of The True. Familiarizing myself with the city during those years, I learned about Albany’s political and social structure. Friends who were aides to state congressmen used to discuss the corruption problems in Albany’s Democratic machine. Other friends, some of them Black Panthers, discussed the white communities’ racial discrimination and local government injustices. In those years, the Irish controlled Albany city and county. And Dan O’Connell as Party Chairman helped Mayor Erastus Corning II govern the city for decades.
On one level I knew about the background of Sharr White’s subject matter and characters in The True. There were no surprises. He based the characters on research about real personalities. On the other hand, the playwright’s perspective on the characters held many surprises. Indeed, his exploration of how power and the ties that solidify power bathe in loyalty appear fascinating in the backdrop of today’s leaking political climate. As a result, The True, ably directed by Scott Elliott and impeccably acted by Edie Falco, Michael McKean, and the ensemble, ignites with humor and intrigue.
White mostly depicts Albany’s machine politics with a positive twist. Ostensibly, hooked-in communities backed the Democrats for good old-fashioned patronage. Their loyalty was rewarded with various types of assistance and employment. The Democratic Party took care of widows and orphans. They got jobs for those who needed help. In exchange the voters listened to their committeemen. And they formed a solid community. Furthermore, they remained loyal to the party until death. As for those who wanted a political career, they worked their way up the ladder, moved from position to position until they achieved glory. Of course they had to live in Albany for all of their lives. Erastus Corning II was such an individual.
But Republicans struggled. They received higher tax bills and other infelicities. Meanwhile, the outsider black community feared Corning’s police. Though injustices raged, they kept their heads down except for a few attempts at protest (by The Brothers). From my outsiders’ perspective a negative mythology about O’Connell’s machine and Mayor Corning II swirled around the capital of New York State. White’s The True rounded out my perspective and brought additional considerations into view.
Interestingly, no clouds of malfeasance penetrate Sharr White’s world of Albany politics, though characters discuss or deny rumors. Instead, White provides a human portrait of individuals. He particularly focuses on the relationship between Corning II (Michael McKean) and secretary and close friend Peggy Noonan (Edie Falco). Though Albany social circles intimated they had a love relationship, White’s play concentrates on their bonds surrounding politics. The ferocious loyalty Noonan has to Corning II as the do-gooding Mayor of Albany is the centerpiece of the play. Yet, questions about their relationship serve as the conflict. When a wedge develops between Corning II and Noonan, their reactions drive the action and stir the characterizations.
Ingeniously, White gives us the insider’s perspective “in the rooms where loyalties happened.” The play opens after Dan O’Connell’s funeral (1977), at friends Peter and Peggy Noonan’s home where Erastus Corning II frequently hangs for comfort and advice. With humorous interplay, Edie Falco portrays Peggy Noonan’s vibrance, determination, and foul-mouthed, steely brilliance. Her political acumen appears greater than that of her male counterparts. Supported by her affable, agreeable, clever, non-political husband Peter (Peter Scolari), they discuss Corning II’s options.
Because Corning II is not O’Connell’s pronounced heir apparent, he is swimming in dark waters after the party boss’s death. We divine that the entire organization (machine) and reins of power are up for grabs. Indeed, Peggy stirs the pot by reminding “Rasty” that the tough O’Connell operative Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) will kick Corning II, whom he dislikes, to the curb. When McKean’s Corning II appears to wobble, Falco clobbers him with the truth of the loss of power that will occur and why and how it will occur. The changing of the guard (few politicians will care about their constituents) will sink Corning II. The lack of loyalty will give others a wedge to undermine the Democratic party’s strength at nurturing its communities.
Falco’s Noonan cajoles with logic, wit, and sarcasm. She delivers quips with sass and spunk and verve. As we note her determination in stirring McKean’s “Rasty” we note their closeness. For his part McKean’s portrait of Corning II remains measured, thoughtful, avuncular. No stench of corruption, rapacious ambition, or ruthlessness follows this likable mayor. Indeed, the portrayal reveals an emotional, deep individual. We note he stays because he yearns for the companionship of his trusted friends. Rather than go home to his wife Betty as Polly suggests, he receives sustenance from them, especially Polly. For his part, Peter listens and participates, generously pouring drinks and good will.
Yet, we question. Why would another man’s wife curate so vehemently the political career of a friend? Why not his own wife? Noonan as Corning’s former secretary means so much more to him than his wife Betty does. Indeed, she appears to be the finest political advisor a politician could have. On closer inspection we understand that this politician is married to his party and career. By design, Polly comes with the package. Thoughtfully, White lightly suggests that their bond did or may sneak beyond the elusive depths of his political career toward intimacy.
Sharr White develops this intriguing notion throughout. Notably, he presents a complex answer by degrees underneath various personality layers and sharp Noonan retorts to Rasty’s rivals. One obvious theme concerns Noonan’s gender. Undoubtedly, at a different time and place, Peggy Noonan would have stepped from behind the scenes to make a grand committeewoman or state congresswoman herself. However, because of gender limitations, she must settle for being Rasty’s brilliant adviser, counselor, and cattle prod, which she adores being. Also, she must wear the filthy smear of the “other woman,” in infamy. For decades it remains a slander from which she receives no benefit.
White shows us the turning point when McKean’s Corning II must give up his association with Peggy “to stop people from talking.” However, that does not stop Noonan’s persistence. She remains “the true.” Loyal to Corning II, she fights for him against his adversaries. And she properly divines the polls where others fail, even Rasty. Finally with only days to spare, we follow her intrigues as she puts together a deal which saves Rasty’s career and convinces a remorseful McKean’s Rasty he should never have left her association.
What a woman! A political wheeler-dealer bar none! In fact White reveals that Erastus Corning II might have languished in the graveyard of failed politicians without her help and Peter’s friendship. By comparison, Corning II’s own family situation appears worse than bleak, isolated and friendless. No forthcoming career help there.
The True succeeds on many levels: the fascinating characters, the acting, the directing. Though the individuals are factual, White teases out the emotional tenor between and among the Noonans and Corning II. Importantly, the playwright depicts an incredible force in Noonan. And Falco portrays her with that particularity inherent in one who is wise, ferocious, logical, politically savvy, and street smart. Also, she happens to be a woman who cares about people, as she suggests that O’Connell and Corning II and the Democratic Party cared about the “have nots.” For me this refreshing inside revelation about a vital and unlikely conductor politically leading a symphony of men strikes with authenticity.
The production is a must-see for Falco’s dogged portrayal, with adroit assists by McKean, Scolari and the rest of the cast. Austin Caldwell portrays Bill McCormick, Glenn Fitzgerald depicts Howard C. Nolan, and John Pankow portrays Charlie Ryan. Kudos go to the creative team: Derek McLane (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design & music composition). The True runs at The Pershing Square Signature Center until 28 October. If you don’t purchase tickets soon, it will be sold out. For tickets Click HERE.
Whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company seems to adapt by way of masterpieces, their productions are like spun gold. They lift the soul with transcendent performances and remind us of what is beyond the material world, sounding the clarion call that there is “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of” in any philosophy. Such is true of their shimmering production Of Human Bondage (see my review on this site and on Blogcritics) as it is true of Artistic Director Albert Schultz’s adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, with Mike Ross as adaptor, composer, arranger and music director. Soulpepper’s award-winning Spoon River is currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center until 29 of July.
Spoon River begins with the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in historic time to the town of Spoon River. The audience moves, from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where they are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to the audience they are beginning their symbolic transformation from mere audience members to mourners. In a corner of the parlor where Bertie is laid out in an open casket with flowers, a shadowy family member welcomes them and thanks them for attending. This is immersive theater and we are in a state of wonder and anticipation knowing that what comes next will be surreal and illuminating.
Proceeding down the hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have passed and whom we will meet later in the production, the audience gradually takes on the role of “living” passersby who come to pay their respects to the dead and learn a lesson or two about life in death and death in life. They are led through the graveyard on the hill where Bertie Hume is to be laid to rest joining those from Spoon River who have gone before her. The tombstones’ lettering, brightly luminescent from the full moon, is carved with the names of those who will later “have their say” about their narrow identities in the material plane, from the perspective of their expansive existence beyond the grave.
This is a momentous night; the harvest moon shines brightly; something unique will happen that audience members will partake of. The veil (represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out) that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world, rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have gone on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the audience, the pall bearers who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and Mr. Pollard who briefly speaks his piece about sweet Bertie being taken by death in the bloom of her life. Bertie, like his Edmund, also deceased, “fed on life.”
Mr. Pollard is unaware of the spiritual plane filled with once living Spoon River citizens who, behind him, stare out at us in silent wakefulness. As we gaze in wonder, we realize that we are privileged to see into the things beyond the apprehension of our five senses on this special night. As happens to most individuals who live as material beings, we receive momentary glimpses into transcendent realms (a theme of this production) in the hope of learning and evolving. The audience and Mr. Pollard are given a glimpse. For the audience/passersby, this fabulous revelation lasts for 90 minutes with no intermission.
Mr. Pollard mentions that, if it is true and sometimes one can hear beyond the veil a choir singing and carrying on, Bertie will be joining them, for her voice was so lovely, the “angels were jealous.” For now she is on the hill “sleepin.” From beyond the veil the Spoon River spiritual choir loudly whisper “sleepin” which stops Pollard “dead” in his tracks at the vibration from the other world. What was that he heard? Was that a momentary aural flicker from the other side, an utterance from those in another plane of consciousness that he cannot see? It is then we begin to consider the theme of sleeping and wakefulness and their interchangeability as metaphors of life and death, and as it turns out much more as the play progresses.
Like Pollard, the audience (after the ninety minutes that we are transported by the Soulpepper company spirits), must contend with the material plane which distracts us by its toil, strife, physical pain and emotional heartache, all of which bring us “down to earth,” (another vital theme). Such earthiness is revealed by the Spoon River deceased as they refer to their secret lives and passions they experienced in Spoon River, and they tell us their personal stories that are heart-breaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling and mesmerizing. They relate their stories and lives as a clarion call and encouragement for us to feed on life while we can.
It is in that extraordinary moment when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin” that the themes of awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life soar. It is then our eyes are opened to what this play will be about. To the cast, “sleepin” is a description of the consciousness of those who are “living” on the material plane because they are blind to the furor of life’s beauty and opportunities. It is also an unction for us to question our own sleeping consciousness. Edgar Lee Masters and this adaptation by director Albert Schultz enlighten us to the concept that we must awaken our soul/consciousness to a greater appreciation of who we are and who others are in this “thing” we call life but only see “through a glass darkly.”
Kudos to Albert Schultz the director and adaptor, Mike Ross and the phenomenal cast, all of whom make this beginning of Spoon River one of the most memorable and transformative theatrical moments I have experienced in live theater. Indeed, from start to glorious finish, this production is truly what the best of live theater is about.
As we settle in with the spirit-community of Spoon River’s deceased citizens, we recognize that they are mentoring us through important themes of life, death, human existence and other worldliness by relating their personal stories which are Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about the people who lived in the small Illinois community. What were these individuals really like? Does anyone know anyone else on the material plane of existence which sometimes can blind us into a sham of duplicity and false fronting? Does anyone know others’ true happinesses, torments, secrets, regrets, lies, crimes? Do people know themselves? The lawyer, the mayor, the housewives, the farmers, the rich, the destitute, the teenagers, the lovers, the lost, each of Master’s townspeople tell us and in each tale there is a lesson for us to learn.
Indeed, to be self-blind is perhaps the worst form of blindness and we are made to understand that even in death when various folks in the Spoon River community step forward and share who they were, they are not necessarily forthcoming and it must be their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses who let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets that composed the core of many of these individuals’ lives; many of the silent mysteries they kept in life are filled with irony, pathos and humor.
The Spoon River souls (each Soulpepper cast member is prodigiously, musically multi-talented) relate stories in a celebration of music (gospel, blues, country, pop and more) songs and accompaniment (banjos, ukeleles, piano, mandolin, cello, violins, guitars, brass, casket drumming, harmonica, and more). The songs are in various measures soulful, vibrant, achingly beautiful, frightening, uplifting and stirring; the dances are variously joyful, foot stomping and rousing. The lighting, staging, costuming and props which backdrop each of the songs/stories are economic, beautiful, appropriate, innovative and inspirational; they enhance the overall atmospheric effect to create riveting and dramatic storytelling.
We watch and participate in the soul enlivening commemoration as the departed tell us about themselves in all their glorious, glowing and dastardly humanity. By the end of the production we understand why they are partying in the other realm. They have been whiling away the time, as they wait for the new member of their otherworldly community to awaken from her sleep of life’s oblivion to a new consciousness in “death.” When Bertie Hume finally arises from her “sleep state” and is renewed, the song she sings is a breathtaking and heart-rending appreciation of the beauty of her life that is now gone. She, too, didn’t love her life to the fullest. She too, was “sleepin” when she should have been soul-awake and “livin.”
If Bertie Hume realizes she didn’t love life as she could have, and she was one to feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to overturn the corporeal for incorporeal values, to fill our lives and awaken our souls with joy, peace and the fruitfulness of having a life well lived with no regrets?
This question is answered by Edgar Lee Masters’ injunction “It takes life to love life,” spoken by the exuberant Fiddler Jones who has joined his fellow spirits with little in the way of material objects, but is happy with 1000 memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion of Spoon River as the Soulpepper company with vibrant song, dance and accompaniment sing out “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed.”
This incredible production holds many beautiful truths. They begin and end in artistic genius; with the unified elements of brilliant music composition and arrangements by Ross, the sterling voices of the talented, superb Soulpepper actors, the musicianship of cast members, the enlightened adaptation by Schultz of Edgar Lee Masters’ concepts and work. The genius flows over, in, around and through Ken MacKenzie (Set & Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this illuminating and uplifting production that all of us can relate to, Schultz, Ross and the Soulpepper company present a banquet. We feed heartily on their enthusiasm and loving generosity. We may even enjoy in our memories and consciousness, a raft of leftovers for future banquets upon which our alive souls may feed.
If your soul is alive and especially if you need renewal and want to feed off the sheer joy of Spoon River, run to see this production before it closes on 29 July. You will be glad you did. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street). To purchase from their website, CLICK HERE.