Friday, February 22, 2013

Theater Review: Curse of the Starving Class -- Long Wharf

Judith Ivey and Peter Albrink. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
What Kind of Family is This? In truth, It’s Ours
By Lauren Yarger
The family is broke, the refrigerator is bare and no one is getting along. Sound familiar? Except for the absurdity of the disillusioned characters in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class playing at Long Wharf Theatre, this might be our family. In a way, because of the absurdity and its revelation of the human condition, we sadly discover that they are us.

The play is the first in Shepard’s family trilogy, which includes Pulitzer-Prize winner Buried Child and True West and is as much an accurate description of American society in 2013 as it was in 1978 when it first was produced. It is a timely choice by Gordon Edelstein, who directs.

Patriarch Weston (Kevin Tighe) is out of job and spends most of his time drunk and losing money he borrows gambling or in bogus land deals for useless desert, where he wants to live in solitude. He schemes to sell his family farm in rural California without the knowledge of his wife, Ella (Judith Ivey), who tried to lock him out the last time he came home drunk. 

Amidst the fragments of the broken door, Ella dreams of relocating to a more sophisticated life in Europe and schemes to sell the farm without Weston’s knowledge, aided by lawyer friend Taylor (John Procaccino), who has his own selfish motives for being part of the deal.

Meanwhile, daughter Emma (Elvy Yost) tries to cope with her first period (the curse) and mean-spirited brother, Wesley (Peter Albrink), who sabotages her 4-H chicken project (her costuming designed by Clint Ramos, for some reason makes her look like a boy.) 

Ivey delivers a powerhouse performance rich for its mix of humor and pathos. Layers of meaning haunt the response she repeatedly uses for her family: “Don’t be ridiculous.”

But ridiculous they are and Emma finally asks, “What kind of a family is this? Wesley urinates in the kitchen (surrounded by dirt in a bare-bones design by Michael Yeargan), Weston sleeps on the kitchen table, there’s a penned lamb baaing away (so amazingly on cue that it received applause) and they all seem surprised every time they open that refrigerator door to find it empty. 

“Just once. Just one time there could be something totally surprising. Something out of the blue,” Ella laments as she finds it empty and opens it again. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s a miracle. Oblivion.”

Things go downhill fast when Emma gets arrested, a guy named Emerson (Clark Middleton) shows up claiming he purchased the house from a drunk Weston and then Wesley interferes with the thugs (Middleton and Ben Becher) trying to collect money from his father. Things get very scary, indeed, when Wesley proves he’s not much more than a chip off the old block.

Shepard’s gift for words and interjection of monologues, where we hear the inner feelings of the characters expressed in the midst of the dialogue and action, creates a depressing, yet moving story that stirs emotion. In the end it is a commentary on American society, on our inability to see the harm in a system that forces us to borrow money that doesn’t even exist and on our expectations that someone else will fill our refrigerator. It also is a devastatingly chilling vision of what the effect of our mismanagement will be on the next generation.

Don’t be put off, however. The darker side of the production is offset by riveting performances by Ivey and Tighe – and that really adorable scene-stealing lamb handled by William Berloni (read more about her here: Also, be warned: the show includes loud noises and nudity.

Curse of the Starving Class runs through March 10 at Long Wharf's Mainstage, 222 Sargent Drive, Nw Haven. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $40-$70 (203) 787-4282;

View a trailer for the show by clicking here.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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