Curse of the Starving Class
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Theater review by Diane Snyder
You expect things to fall apart at the end of a Sam Shepard play. In the Signature Theatre’s ambitious revival of Curse of the Starving Class, it happens at the very beginning. Julian Crouch’s set, the kitchen of a dilapidated farmhouse, splits open at the middle; windows and cabinets hang suspended for the rest of the performance, foreshadowing the destruction that is about to befall the Tates, a destitute rural California clan riven by ennui. Temperamental alcoholic father Weston (David Warshofsky) has broken down the front door, which sullen son Wesley (Gilles Geary) sets out to repair. Distraught wife and mother Ella (Maggie Siff) longs to sell the house and go to Europe, while exasperated daughter Emma (Lizzy DeClement) is full of wild ideas about how she’s going to break free from her family.
Director Terry Kinney and his cast find memorable moments in Shepard’s darkly satirical 1977 play. Food is tossed about, and Wesley eats like an animal off the floor; characters repeatedly open and close the refrigerator, as though expecting its contents to magically change. A well-behaved lamb gets penned in the kitchen and becomes a sounding board for Weston. Some aspects of the play (the destruction of the kitchen, two male relatives swapping identities) prefigure elements that the playwright would explore more successfully in his 1980 drama True West.
Time has diminished some of Curse of the Starving Class’s shock value—nudity and onstage urination are not as surprising as they used to be—and the Signature’s production doesn’t dig deeply enough into the feeling the play seems to be after: It doesn’t pulse with the agony of stunted existence. But Shepard’s potent writing, with its raw pain and rich symbolism, still resonates. Its depiction of a white rural family worried about losing its homestead and its place in America seems very much in step with the national mood.
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Sam Shepard. Directed by Terry Kinney. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.