The Long Wharf Theatre's superb production of Curse of the Starving Class is not just another Sam Shepard play about a dysfunctional family. Amazingly, it is the first time the Long Wharf Theatre ever staged one of Sam Shepard's plays, and it couldn't be timelier.
In a nutshell, mom Ella (Judith Ivey), dad Weston (Kevin Tighe), son Wesley (Peter Albrink) and daughter Emma (Elvy Yost) live in a dilapidated house somewhere in a California desert. Financially, they're ruined. Weston has the Midas touch in reverse. He bought land elsewhere, too, that turned out to be more desert, and is in debt up to his eyeballs. He might have noticed it had he not been sloshed all the time. His wife tries to sell the family farm without his knowledge. It turns out he already sold it behind her back. Wesley would like to stay, while his feisty sister, who is young enough to have just started menstruating, and old enough to be a hell raiser, can't wait to get away - far, far away.
This 1978 play sets the stage (no pun intended) for what happened almost 40 years later when the housing bubble burst. "Banks are loaning money right, left and center," Ella tells Wesley, confident that her lawyer friend, Taylor (John Procaccino) will arrange for the sale of the house practically overnight. "Everyone wants a piece of land. It's the only sure investment. It can never depreciate like a car or a washing machine. Land will double its value in ten years. In less than that. Land is going up every day."
Meanwhile, her husband explains, "See, I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. I figured that's why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, house, lots, invest.... The whole thing's geared to invisible money. You never hear the sound of change anymore. It's all plastic shuffling back and forth. It's all in everybody's heads. So I figured, if that's the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go in debt for a few grand, if all it is is numbers? If it's all an idea and nothing's really there, why not take advantage?"
What is there is, is a curse, not just on the great starving class of Shepard's characters in this play and in his others, but the curse of the poison that gets passed down from generation to generation, as if it were a hereditary disease. Weston and Wesley discuss it. Ella and Emma do not, but they each fantasize about life in their own magical place. And before Emma is ready to take off, she turns into her violent father as she tries to retrieve the money stolen from him by a local bar owner, Emerson (Clark Middleton). And Wesley transforms into his father, just as the brothers in Shepard's True West become each other.
The land in Curse of the Starving Class is barren and the refrigerator which the family members keep opening in the first act is empty, but the production is rich with vivid characters that are flawlessly cast. Tighe and Yost shine as Weston and Emma. Judith Ivey deftly navigates a character who is the responsible adult yet simultaneously delusional and gullible. Albrink is chilling as Wesley, dependable at times and off the wall at others. Procaccino is nimble as the seemingly simple country lawyer with an agenda. Ben Becher makes the most of the roles of the respectable officer of the law Sargent Malcolm, and his opposite Slater, a mobster. Watching Middleton on stage with Tighe is like watching two top athletes competing with each other. Middleton also plays Ellis, the other mobster, with equal mastery. There is also a natural scene stealer in the show - Edie, the adorable white lamb handled by renowned animal trainer William Berloni. She is not just cute, but instinctively knows when to bleat, and she does it so sweetly and winningly.
Kudos to Gordon Edelstein for his skillful directing and his decision to bring a Shepard play to the Long Wharf. Finally, Michael Yeargan's amazing set captures perfectly the decaying house and farm with a kitchen floor made of a repetitive print pattern and material used for banners and the ground up cork and pieces of broken rubber for the ground outside.