A particular strain of bitter, self-lacerating disappointment in America comes to a theatrical apotheosis in Sam Shepard’s late-1970s/early-1980s classic plays (Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and Buried Child are sometimes known as the “Family Trilogy”). In Signature’s current revival of Curse of the Starving Class, director Terry Kinney and set designer Julian Crouch cut right to the chase: the American dream is always already destroyed. In the play’s first moments, the Tate family’s rundown farmhouse kitchen, with its crockery-filled shelves and dusty windows, shatters, walls and shelves splitting and flying upward in a clatter of kitchenware and then stopping, suspended as if trapped mid-explosion, to loom overhead for the rest of the play. Through the broken walls, we see a black void surrounding the kitchen; the characters enter and exit into nothingness. There’s no safety in “home” here.
It’s a stunning effect, but it has the side effect of foreshadowing both theme and plot in a way that makes the play grimmer and more frightening, layering even its moments of dark humor with ever-present existential dread. Rather than dreaming about bettering themselves, the members of the Tate family seem from the outset to be suspended by the tips of their fingers above the abyss.
The patriarch, Weston (David Warshofsky), is a violent alcoholic who disappears for long stretches of time and owes money to everyone around (including some very bad men); we first see not the man himself but the aftermath of his showing up drunk the previous night and beating down the door. He cleans up, briefly, during the play, but it’s hard to believe his transformation will stick. His wife, Ella (Maggie Siff), is mostly just fed up; it’s never entirely clear how much she helps to run the farm or what the family does to survive during Weston’s absences–or, really, how she and Weston got together and have remained married for decades. Now Ella has had enough: she’s found a lawyer and is trying to have Weston declared incompetent so she can sell the farm to developers without his participation. Unfortunately, Weston has also sold the farm, for the value of his debts, to a local business owner (Esau Pritchett). Their son, Wesley (Gilles Geary), who seems to do most of the day-to-day labor, stubbornly refuses to consider the possibility of change; the farm is all he knows, the farm is all there is, and he won’t go. And Emma (Lizzy DeClement), the adolescent daughter, is a coiled spring of frustration; her family is nothing but obstacles to her. She wants out, but sure as hell not on her mother’s terms. Oscillating between fearing and idolizing her father, Emma’s impulsiveness ramps up higher and higher over the course of the play until she’s literally uncontainable. She still believes in the possibility of bettering her lot by striking out for the hills, as it were–an optimism that the play slowly crushes.
Starving Class premiered in 1977, and the characters’ isolation, combined with Shepard’s tendency to write characters whose structural roles define them as much as their individual traits, gives the play a kind of folk-tale out-of-time quality that means it doesn’t feel instantly dated, although its slow-burn, deliberate pacing does feel like it originated in an era of more patient audiences. Indeed, its issues and themes, especially as they deal with economic insecurity, feel frighteningly relevant to the America of today.
The Tate family is cash-poor, option-poor, but possibly land-rich, only valuable to their society as fuel for the machine of uninterrogated economic growth–and in their isolation and ignorance, ripe for exploitation by whichever capitalist interest cheats them first. (Weston has already been on the losing end of one property scheme, buying a worthless piece of property in the desert a mere three hours from Palm Springs.) The family blows apart over Emma and Ella’s different attempts to get out from under a never-ending struggle and a creeping economic despair; to escape the situations they’ve been placed in by destructive men. Weston would perhaps be addicted to Oxycontin rather than alcohol were the play written today, but the destructive spiral of the addict and his blithe belief that if he just sobers up he’ll go back to being the unquestioned head of household ring true.
The characters arrange themselves into parallels and pairs, lines of inheritance (perhaps a little too neatly): Wesley and Weston, and Emma and Ella, almost share names, and it’s the men who want to stay put and the women desperate to get out. But in temperament, father and daughter share emotional volatility and a tendency toward (melo)dramatic pronouncements. Mother and son are less even-keeled than numbed, almost unable to react to the insane events with the gravity they demand.
Kinney seems to be focusing on the latter dualities rather than the former, amping up David Warshofsky’s Weston and Lizzy DeClement’s Emma to maximum energy (although to be fair, most of Emma’s dialogue is literally written in caps) and pushing Gilles Geary’s Wesley and Maggie Siff’s Ella into a more contained or restrained emotional register. The numb seems to work a little better, Siff and Geary, yearning for human contact or affection, hold the heart of the play.The missing link, though, is a relationship between Weston and Ella; it’s rare that we see, in either the script or the performances, what might have brought or kept these two together.
Kinney’s production does capture well Shepard’s characteristic oscillation between hyper-real physicality and archetypal elements in the plot and characters. The fleshy physicality of the characters and their environment is on full, sometimes grotesque display: all kinds of food, from bacon and eggs fried onstage to an onslaught of artichokes to a refrigerator finally stocked and then decimated by a filthy, blood-covered Wesley; a maggot-ridden sheep (a live sheep, played by a lamb named Annie); mud and blood all over the place; male nudity. At the same time, the tidy double-cross of the land sale, and all the twinning and mirroring of the character pairs, feel like elements from an O. Henry story or some older folk tale.
Shepard draws an American dream that crumbles into impotent violence, the stifling weight of family ties, and a paralyzing realization that escape, success, even one step up from their current, depressing circumstances, are all a fantasy for the Tate family. They may go on the run, but they’ll never outrun their failures, or America’s.