Sam Shepard's gritty plays cut to the bone. Gordon Edelstein's direction of this present production of Shepard's “Curse of the Starving Class,” which premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1977,is so brilliant you want to turn away from some of the painful parts yet at the same time, you are laughing at the ironic humor that runs throughout the pain.
The landscape, dry and dusty California, is not a familiar one. Michael Yeargan's desolate, mostly sandy set, lit by James F. Ingalls, is a home on a farm bereft of almost everything. There is a small working stove, a refrigerator that is for the most part totally empty, a table that serves as a bed and a couple of wooden chairs. And then there is the front door. It has been bashed to pieces by Weston, the alcoholic father of this family. Weston, a Vietnam vet, is played grandly by Kevin Tighe, whom we do not meet until the second act of the play.
The first shockingly frank scene concerns Weston's family, specifically his wife, Ella, the marvelous Judith Ivey, who was most recently seen in “The Heiress’ on Broadway and could win awards for her role as Aunt Lavinia Penniman. (We will never forget this actress in “Steaming” at the Hartman Theatre in Stamford for which she won a Tony for Best Featured actress in 1983.) Ella, an earthy survivor, is dealing with an absent, inebriated husband and two children: 18 year old Wesley, a part Peter Albrink, whether clothed or stripped, gives his all, and Emma, a young tomboy played well by Elvy Yost. They are dealing with being underfed in more ways than one. Their conversation concerns an intimate discussion and ends up with Wesley urinating on Emma's school project. Ella's spirits are being kept alive by the promise of selling this house and land to Taylor, a lawyer. As he usually does, John Procaccino gives a smooth performance as this fine-looking, fast-talking speculator. Ella dreams of going to Europe where, she tells her son, there is history. Her son is opposed to the idea of selling the house, for as disappointing as it is, he knows it will be the end of the family unit.
There is a fly in the ointment. Weston, while drunk, has sold the house for a pittance to Ellis, the owner of the Alibi Bar, to pay off debts. Clark Middleton is sufficiently scary and sleazy as Ellis and Ben Becher is too as Slater. The play takes a touching turn when Weston awakes from his stupor, cleans up, and tells his son that he is prepared to run the farm with him as it should be; he has no memory of having sold the place. Eslery tells him it is too late; they are zombies, the curse of tragedy is part of them. Emma is in jail, having decided on a life of crime. A subsequent explosion kills her.
At times throughout the play, there is another character on stage: a lovely live white lamb who, instead of delivering a meaningful monologue like the others, bleats. Even it meets a terrible demise. (The lamb is trained by the famed William Berloni.)
“Curse of the Starving Class,” an American tragedy, will play through March 10 at the Long Wharf.