Curse of the Starving Class
By Sam Shepard. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Through March 10 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org
Seeing Curse of the Starving Class on the Long Wharf mainstage is like when '70s punk bands reunite and play concert halls they never expected to play at in their heyday. It's a whole new experience, but a worthwhile and enlightening one. It shows that what the regional theater considers classic is not what we might have expected a few decades ago.
Even setting aside the countless productions of his plays at area colleges and small theaters over the years, Sam Shepard's hardly an unknown quantity in New Haven. The Yale Rep did the world premiere of his Suicide in B-Flat in 1976 and an acclaimed production of Buried Child in 1979 (the year after it premiered in New York and won a Pulitzer). In between those two shows, the world premiere of Curse of the Starving Class occurred at the Royal Court Theater in London, where its cast included future real-life New Haven Police Lieutenant Ray Hassett. The play was the first of what's now considered Shepard's career-changing "Family Trilogy" (Buried Child and True West are the others), and was such a hot item that the Village Voice awarded it an Obie based on its script alone, before it had even been staged in New York. (Long Wharf Theater had other writers it was touting back then — 1976-77 was the year that theater premiered Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box and D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, both of which went to Broadway and won Pulitzers. The Rep was considered the wilder, rawer regional theater in town.)
At this point in his career, Sam Shepard was deliberately questioning the accepted conventions of drama. He was adding insane "danger elements" to his plays — not just shocking moments, but challenging shocking moments that take careful preparation to stage.
Curse of the Starving Class features full-frontal nudity, stomach-turning binge eating, onstage urination, a live sheep, a huge offstage explosion and a whole lot of writhing and bellowing. Its characters continually criticize, thwart and undermine each other in a depressive modern take on the old trope about saving the family farm. All motives are suspect, all relationships dysfunctional, and the comic extremes (drunken reeling, bringing a lamb indoors, dreaming of a better life) all lead to life-threatening horrors.
When the Yale Rep produced Curse of the Starving Class about a decade ago, it was a chaotic, consciously cartoonish production directed by Jim Simpson, who as Artistic Director of Off Broadway's Flea Theater seemed to have just the right attitude and sense of tradition for the job. I remember thinking at the time that if Simpson couldn't pull off a revival of this show on a regional theater stage, few could. But I felt his staging ended up sensationalistic, rock-show frantic and ultimately insincere.
Gordon Edelstein's more measured, more brightly lit and less intense Long Wharf production, by contrast, proceeds naturalistically, with a level of emotional truth that balances the play's many outrageous outbursts. But it has its own issues.
Sam Shepard's works of the '70s, like the revolutionary plays of Athol Fugard in South Africa around the same time, were generally staged on very small stages in makeshift theaters. There's an in-your-face immediacy and urgency inherent in them that is heightened by the enclosed quarters.
When adjusting The Curse of the Starving Class to the sprawling, thrusting Long Wharf mainstage, Edelstein and his designers have used a scheme similar to when the director has done Fugard plays in the same space. There's a central playing area with clear boundaries (though in this case, no actual walls or windows), surrounded by an atmospheric expanse of flat, cold, quiet earth. This gritty, still landscape spreads right out under the feet of the audience, and in the other direction into the furthest reaches of the backstage walls.
Such a set provides a beautiful and chillingly bleak background to the action, but it also can't help but mess with Sam Shepard's immaculate sense of timing.
In this rendition, there are shocks, just not short sharp ones. Nobody suddenly appears at the door; we see them coming a fair distance, diluting the surprise. The wide open stage also kills the often critical claustrophobia Shepard creates in his stifling decline-of-American-society scenarios. His characters frequently discuss getting out and going other places. In many productions, this just doesn't seem possible. On that big-world-out-there stage, it does.
Without changing a line of the script, Edelstein changes the tone and scope of this drama, bringing it into the same realm as his introspective fly-on-a-wall production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie a couple of seasons back. That connection is strengthened by having Judith Ivey, the Amanda of that Menagerie, portray the matriarch of Starving Class. Ivey also evokes her appearance at Long Wharf Stage II in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine by cooking breakfast on a working oven onstage.
The cast is a bracing mix of blustery old-school talent (Ivey, Kevin Tighe, John Procaccino) and jittery young blood (Peter Albrink of the Hell's Kitchen collective Exit, Pursued by a Bear, and Elvy Yost of the quirky high school rock flick Bandslam). There's also the charming (if that's the word for such a sinister performance) casting of Actors Studio icon Clark Middleton, a Sam Shepard veteran.
This is an individualized and resized production of an uncompromising comic tragedy. Its chaos may be controlled but its message of a world gone mad remains.