Reviewed by Judy Richter
The premiere of "Curse of the Starving Class" 30 years ago launched playwright Sam Shepard into the pantheon of major American playwrights. American Conservatory Theater, which has twice staged his "Buried Child," now tackles "Curse" for the first time -- with noteworthy results. Directed by Peter DuBois, "Curse" is a searing look at a dysfunctional family on a downward trajectory.
Loy Arcenas' scenery sets the tone right away. The kitchen of a rundown house is surrounded by a yard littered with junk and a barren landscape that we later learn is in Southern California. However, Japhy Weideman's lighting, depicting a sunrise as the curtain rises, hints at the beauty that creates some sense of hope in the main characters. (The costumes are by Lydia Tanji, and the music and sound are by Fabian Obispo.)
The family is headed by Weston (Jack Willis), a drunken ne'er do well who broke down the door to the house the night before. His wife is the long-suffering Ella (Pamela Reed, who played the daughter, Emma, in the premiere production). Their children are the teenage Wesley (Jud Williford) and his younger sister, Emma (Nicole Lowrance). It's no coincidence that the children's names so closely resemble those of their parents, for the younger generation seems doomed to follow in their missteps.
The central conflict arises when each parent tries to sell the house unbeknownst to the other. Ella wants to take the money, go to Europe and start a new life. Weston wants to pay off debts and start anew, too. Unfortunately, their inherent character flaws, along with past mistakes, are too much to overcome. Even more unfortunately, the two children are victims, too.
Shepard loads the play with symbolism, especially the beat-up old refrigerator that each character opens again and again in hopes of finding something to eat. When Weston returns home after a binge, he brings only thorny, hard to eat artichokes. A cute live lamb, which can symbolize both innocence and sacrifice, also figures into the story, but the actors are strong enough not to let it upstage them.
Shepard's language sometimes seems more poetic than one might expect from such people. And in the hands of less talented actors, it could become deadly, but DuBois and his actors avoid the pitfalls. Willis is roaring and volatile when Weston is drunk, yet becomes calm and domestic, serenely folding the family's laundry, when he gets sober and cleans up. Reed's Ella is a somewhat concerned mother who's easily duped by a smooth-talking lawyer, Mr. Taylor (Dan Hiatt), who says he represents developers who want to buy the property. Lowrance becomes a bit shrill in some of headstrong Emma's screaming tirades, but one can't blame her for being angry after her mother cooks the chicken that was to be part of a 4-H project and her brother urinates on the charts she had prepared for it. She's also just started her first period.
Williford has perhaps the most complex role as Wesley, who starts out as an older brother who teases his sister, detests his father's behavior and tries to undo some of his father's damage. In later scenes, however, one sees him tragically morphing into his father. Williford even imitates some of Willis' distinctive manner of speaking.
Besides Hiatt as the lawyer, the supporting cast includes Rod Gnapp as Ellis, the bar owner who buys the house from Weston; Craig Marker as the California Highway Patrol officer who arrests Emma after she tries to get the purchase money from Ellis; and T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain as the two giggling thugs who wreak havoc in their efforts to collect debts from Weston.
In her program notes, ACT artistic director Carey Perloff cites comments that Weston makes to his son. In essence, Weston says that he saw everyone around him charging things and using plastic to attain the good life. He concludes: "So I figured if that's the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go into debt for a few grand if all it is is numbers?" Perloff notes that these comments reflect what's happening in American society today as the housing crisis deepens and the economy suffers. Nevertheless, she writes, "America continues to be a place where people dream of staking out new ground, ... creating new opportunities for their families."
And as is the case with some families today, Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class" family finds only disappointment and disillusionment.