by Sam Shepard
Directed by Paul Melone
TheatreZone at Chelsea Theatre Works
189 Winnisimmet St., Chelsea MA / (617 )661 - 9622
Through May 8

Reviewed by Will Stackman

It doesn't seem that long ago that Sam Shepard was one of the hopes for the future of American playwriting. His active return to the scene is overdue. A satirical family tragedy from 1977, "Curse of the Starving Class" is the culmination of TheatreZone's inaugural Chelsea Theatre Works season in the refurbished OddFellows hall on Chelsea Sq. in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge. This play is less often produced not so much for its technical requirements–a real stove and a refrigerator with a working light–or its implied violence, but probably because including a live lamb in the cast seems daunting, if not distracting. TheatreZone has risen to these challenges and assembled a powerful cast as well. Now all they need is an audience willingly to find their way to the opposite shore of Boston Harbor to this handsome new space.

To start with, the play may be more relevant today than a quarter of a century ago, with its vision of family dysfunction, social violence, and a rapacious society that leaves poor farmers far behind. Under Paul Melone's crisp direction, a first-rate seasoned cast brings out the raw emotion in this three act drama. Melone most recently directed "Our Lady of 121st St." for Speakeasy and does equally well here. Eliza Rose Fichter, Boston youngest award-winning actress, is unsettling as Emma, the teenage daughter. Floyd Richardson, seen in both "Book of Days" and "Spitfire Grill" at the Lyric finds real depth in Weston, her drunken father, the play's real lead. Danielle Fauteux Jacques, TheatreZone's Artistic Director, is unrelenting as Ella. the mom, forever scheming to escape her disasterous family. Michael McKeogh , new to Boston, eventually gets into Wesley, the son who's not all there, the role Shepard originated himself. Together these four go down fighting

The supporting cast, beginning with Hamlet, the real lamb raised by the company for the show, is equally effective. Carlos Zalduondo, who appeared in the company's last prodution of "Rhinocerous", is convincing as the lawyer who sold drunken Weston worthless desert land and is now trying to romance Emma out of their avacado farm. John Depew's Ellis, the local barkeep and loan shark, has an air of affable menace as he claims to have bought the farm from Weston first. Owen Doyle as the local sheriff's deputy, come to tell Emma that her daughter has just rode her crazy horse through Ellis' bar and shot the place up, and the two thugs in the finale, Caleb Hammond and Tony Dangerfield, are all believable as pawns in this Guignol. This play is the harbinger of the author's Pulitzer Prize winning, "Buried Child", and while it doesn't reach the intensity of "Fool for Love" much of the time, it's still raw, gutlevel drama.

"Curse of the Starving Class", like much of Shepard's work, makes use of extended speeches, almost arias, as characters bear their souls by recounting the past, often with a touch of the tall tale. Such ambiguity forces the audience to continually reevaluate what they know about who these people are and why they're behaving in an often peculiar fashion. Actors clearly relish the chance to dig into the linguistic and psychological riches, but it takes a firm hand and some vision as to just where such a trainwreck is headed to pull of a play like this. TheatreZone's nine-year history of finding contemporary plays that speak to social situations, then finding actors who will work on them, has stood them well in this case.

Technical support is quite sufficient. Julia Noulin-Merat's simple set centered around the all-important kitchen table has a painted floor and the barest indication of walls, with the dirt yard surrounding the house. The checkered gingham curtains are always closed, and there's always some clutter on the painted plank floor. C.Scott Anian isolates the acting area nicely, while Fay Gerbes sound effects and occasional music are well executed. More of a soundscape--cars on the distant freeway, coyotes at night , etc. would be a nice touch. Susan Paino's costumes, especially Weston's tattered rags and Ella's pathetic finery, set the era and the scene. As the company acumulates more stock units, they should be able to set as fine a stage as anyone in town.

This summer TheatreZone is taking their premiere production of the season "Anger Box", a series of solo vingnettes to the Edinburgh Fringe. They're also presenting their second outdoor Lorca production, "The House of Bernarda Alba", alternating nights in Spanish and English. Shepard fans should watch for an announcement of a production of the author's Gulf War 1 play "States of Shock" which will play at Harvard later this spring. Maybe the current national crisis will move him to write another insightful piece soon. And then there's the soon to be released documentary of "The Late Harry Moss", "This So-Called Disaster", filmed by Michael Almereyda.

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