‘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.
The Mindblasting Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano Cave to Primal Hatreds and Private Desolations in Sam Shepard’s ‘True West’
True West by Sam Shepard is a tour de force which easily reveals actors’ talents or their infelicities. Indeed, it may be a devastating on-stage nightmare if the actors’ skills do not resonate with a fluid “moment-to-moment” dynamic that sits precariously on the knife-edge of emotional chaos and crisis. This is especially so in Act II of Shepard’s True West which is currently in revival at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, starring the consummate Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. Both actors rise to the pinnacle of their skills surfing their own moment-to-moment impulses in this sense-memory tearing, emotional slug-fest of a play about siblings. This is a glorious, shattering production thanks to Hawke and Dano who once more prove to be among the great actors of their generation. If Shepard is apprised of this production in another realm of consciousness, surely he is thrilled.
The arc of True West‘s development reveals Shepard’s acute examination of brothers Lee and Austin who wrangle and rage against each other to finally emerge from the emotional and familial folkways they’ve spun into their own self-fabricated prisons. The second act especially (the first act is more expositional and slower paced) screams with the taut, granular impact of subtly shifting, increasingly augmenting collisions of the mind, will and emotions of the older, social outcast and thief Lee (portrayed with dark tension, authenticity, humanity by Ethan Hawke) and the younger, ambitious, middle class Austin (the “mild-mannered” Dano seethes with fury and sub rosa angst that simmers to a boil). As these two attempt to reconnect after an estrangement, they thinly reconcile, negotiating confrontation and abrasion, while they attempt to deal with personal dissatisfaction. During their reunion, they discover that too far is never far enough to unleash the emotional convolutions, chaos and conundrums of their relationship.
Of course, Shepard’s searing, dark humor and sardonic irony resides in Lee’s and Austin’s attempt to achieve an inner and outer expurgation. Interestingly, they use each other’s “being” as a battering ram against themselves and their complex, twisted “brotherhood.” And as they pummel and propel themselves “forward” through the charged, electrified atmosphere between them, they disintegrate their inner soul rot and misery. By the conclusion of the play, they have reached their own TRUE WEST. This is brilliantly symbolized and effected by Jane Cox’s Lighting Design, Mimi Lien’s Set Design and Bray Poor’s Original Music and Sound Design.
In the last moments between life, death and resurrection, Lee and Austin stand on the edge of a precipice eyeballing each other with uncertain respect and caution as they assess who they are and what they have wrought together. We realize that they have sought this desert of their creation. That they, by primal impulses, destroyed and trashed everything around them including some of their mother’s prized possessions to get there, is unfathomable to us. It is incomprehensible unless we examine our own self-destructive behaviors. However, their behavior is an achievement necessary to get to who they are. At the least they’ve shed pretense. They are raw creature/creations like the the yapping coyotes that lure pets, grab them and chow down for supper. However, where these characters go from this still point remains uncertain. But the hope is that it will result in a new identity for each, away from the annihilation and alienation of the parents who raised them.
Though Shepard’s play is set in the distant past, the themes and relationship that Hawke and Dano establish is vital, energetic, heart-breaking, mind-blowing, current. Each actor has brought so much of his own grist to Lee and Austin and responds with such familiarity and raw honesty to the other, it is absolutely breathtaking. It remains impossible not to watch both and be in awe of their craft. One is utterly engaged in the suspense of where the brothers’ impulses will take them as they scrape and claw at each other’s nerve endings to create bleeding wounds.
Thanks go to James Macdonald’s direction and staging to facilitate Dano’s and Hawke’s memorable portrayals. With extraordinary performances like theirs, we are compelled to consider the characters, and determine how and why they are smashing each other’s personal boundaries to reveal inner resentments, hurts, and the chaotic forces that have swamped each of them in the most particular ways. The ties that bind them run so deep these two are oxymorons. They have identical twin souls, though they are externally antithetical. Why they clash is because they are like minded: raging, though controlled. Their emotions, like subterranean lava flows wait for the precise moment to explode and change the landscape around them. Lee is the more mature volcano; but his earthquakes create the chain reaction that stirs Austin’s. No smoke and mirrors here; just raw power.
As a perfect foil to spur the play’s development Gary Wilmes portrays Saul Kimmer, the producer hack who smarmes his way into Austin’s heart, then dumps him because he will not exact a devil’s bargain which Austin refuses to accept. Austin’s rejection of the “bargain,” enragese Lee. Wilmes is appropriately diffuse and opaque. Where does he really stand? What happened to make him turn on a dime regarding hiring Austin who has invested sweat equity and emotional integrity in a project Kimmer professed interest in? Wilmes is both authentic and the Hollywood “type,” to drive Lee and Austin against each other.
Likewise, as a foil, Marylouise Burke is LOL hysterical but frightening as their quirky mother. Her responses to their behavior are hyperbolic in the reverse and they speak volumes about how this family “functioned” in the past. She, too, helps to engine the suspense as Austin takes his power over Lee and she remains sanguine. All of the audience who are parents and especially those who have avoided the role are screaming silently in horror as the two “have at one another.” The situation and their confrontation is insane and humorous. Burke is perfect in the role as non-mediator. And Macdonald has done a magnificent job of balancing the tone and tenor of the last scene. As a result, Burke, Hawke, Dano deliver the lightening blow that helps us to realize the brothers’ intentions and the result of where they find themselves at the finale.
So much of the production resides in these incredible portrayals, of Lee and Austin’s devolution into the abyss to come to an epiphany. Caught up with that, one may overlook the artistic design. But it is so integral for it reveals the family and reflects the dynamic interactions. Superb, for example are the sound effects which augment in intensity, the frame of lights contrasting the stage into darkness for set changes, the homely, well-ordered kitchen and alcove writing area, the lovely plants and their “growth” (a field-day for symbolists), and the props. The toasting scene is just fabulous. Kudos go to Mimi Lien (Set Design) Kaye Voyce (Costume Design) Jane Cox (Lighting Design) Bray Poor (Original Music & Sound Design) Tom Watson (Hair & Wig Design) Thomas Shall (Fight Choreographer).
Sam Shepard’s play is a powerful revelation of brotherly love and hate, its design and usefulness. At the heart of our global issues resides familial relationships. To what impact on the whole is the sum of its parts? To what extent do families foment their own hatred upon themselves and the culture to exacerbate the issues? Likewise, what of families who love each other? The interplay between families and society is present but understanding it remains elusive and opaque. Shepard attempts clarity. Certainly, Lee points out that family relationships are high stakes and sometimes the warring relatives kill each other. Certainly, Austin points out that he and Lee will not kill each other over a film script. But he underestimates how far he or Lee are willing to go. How far are any of us willing to go if pushed by a relative?
Life’s uncertainty, as in the best of plays is all about surprise and not knowing what will happen in the next moments. This production of True West lives onstage because the actors are immersed in the genius of acting uncertainty that is always present. Most probably, their performance is different daily because the actors have dared to breathe out the characters whose souls they have elicited. Just W.O.W! (wild, obstreperous, wonderful)
See True West before it closes on 17 March. It runs with one intermission at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th. You can get tickets at their website HERE.
‘Buried Child’ The New Group Production Starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.