Opened April 30 at American Conservatory Theater
Pamela Reed (left) as Ella, chucks artichokes out of the fridge across a prone Jack Willis as Weston and toward Jud Williford as her son, Wesley in ACT’s Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Photos by Kevin Berne
Shepard’s revised `Curse’ still packs punch
Three stars Let it bleat
Lambs, it turns out, are stage hogs.
There’s an adorable little lamb in the American Conservatory Theater production of Sam Shepard’s 1977 drama Curse of the Starving Class, and nearly every bleat emanating from the lamb pen got a laugh – or at least a chuckle.
That probably wasn’t Shepard’s aim, but he wanted naturalism, so he gets naturalism. When members of the Tate family want breakfast, they walk over to the functioning gas stove and fry up bacon and bread. Later on there’s some ham and eggs in a skillet. The title may include the word “starving,” but the Tates eat fairly well. Still, that’s not to say they’re not hungry for something. “We’re hungry, and that’s starving enough for me,” Mrs. Tate says.
Shepard has tinkered with his original ’77 script, most significantly turning it from a three-act to a two-act play, but what still registers is his view of the great American family and its ultimate dysfunction. The American dream is too big, too elusive. We kill ourselves and our families trying to achieve that dream, whatever it might be, and still we pursue it doggedly.
Weston Tate (Jack Willis) is a veteran – an air man – whose post-war life is a shambles. He’s drunk most of the time and ignores his wife, Ella (Pamela Reed) and his two kids, 20something Wesley (Jud Williford) and budding teen Emma (Nicole Lowrance). The wife and kids fend for themselves on a ramshackle desert ranch (beautiful, hyper-realistic set, complete with barbed wire, tumbleweeds and scrap-yard metal by Loy Arcenas) hoping against hope that dad will somehow straighten out and fill their empty refrigerator with food.
That refrigerator is practically a character in the play. Mom delivers a monologue to it and keeps peeking in, just in case the fridge, unlike life, has a surprise for her. The kids open the door to see if there’s any food. Groceries do occasionally arrive – mom has an assignation with a lawyer (Dan Hiatt) and gets some cash and groceries out of it. And then dad, on a bender, fills the fridge with artichokes.
Those artichokes later become projectile produce when mom – not pleased by the strange vegetables – hurls them across the room.
Many things are destroyed over the course of the play’s 2 ½ hours: a door, 4-H charts, a lamb, a car and, of course, dreams and lives. This is brutal stuff. As Weston says: “Family isn’t just a social thing. It’s an animal thing.”
Director Peter DuBois struggles with pacing in the first act. The natural rhythms are elusive, and it’s difficult to see where anything is heading (plus, what do you do after you have someone pee onstage?). But all the set-up has some nice payoff in Act 2. There’s blood, mayhem, nudity, napping, rebirth, death and a possible trip to Europe.
Reed (above left with Lowrance), who was so good as the wronged wife in ACT’s The Goat, returns to play another matriarch, this one much less likable, though Reed makes her awfully funny (and horrifying) and appealing (and awful). The really interesting thing is that in the original New York production of Curse, Reed played the angry daughter, and now, in this revised version, she’s playing the mother (a role originally played by Olympia Dukakis, another member of ACT’s extended family).
Reed’s Ella feels the most lived in of all the characters, though Willis seems to be having fun with the wastrel Weston. Williford (the one responsible for the nudity) is pouty and damaged as the son who has seen his “old man’s poison,” and Lowrance is a spitfire as the daughter who never met a screaming, angry fit she didn’t want to express to the utmost. Her tantrum and tirades are the highlights of Act 1.
As the economic downturn of the Tate family hits its spiral, Shepard quickly introduces some shady but entertaining figures (played by Rod Gnapp, T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain) before he turns Curse into a fully explosive tragedy with nothing good to say about the family unit.
Shepard seems to be saying that this is what happens to people who aren’t poor and who aren’t rich. They’re stuck in the middle with no hope, no prospects, no great love and a never-ending hunger that leads to terrible things. The playwright may have tinkered with the play, but he sure didn’t add a happy ending.
Curse of the Starving Class continues through May 25 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.