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Theatre in Review: Curse of the Starving Class (Signature Theatre)

Gilles Geary, Maggie Siff. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Some productions climax, or even conclude, with a coup de théâtre; Terry Kinney's production at the Signature begins with one, and it's a honey: As the lights come up, Julian Crouch's set, depicting a rundown farmhouse kitchen, blows apart, with some pieces ending up dangling over the stage. It's an attention-getter, to be sure, but it also mirrors the action of Sam Shepard's black comedy, in which a California family is flying apart in various directions.

Ella, the notably unmaternal matriarch, is planning on selling the house and surrounding land, using the money to take her kids, the adult Wesley and teenage Emma, to Europe -- where, she is certain, an entirely new and happy life awaits. Ella hasn't felt the need to inform her husband, Weston, of her plans, since he basically lives in the local bars, lost in an alcohol fog. (He showed up the night before, long enough to break down the door, which nobody has bothered to replace.) Weston, however, also has a buyer for the house and plans to use the profits to pay off his debts to loan sharks, setting up a conflict that gets ugly in record time.

The children of this war zone of a marriage are equally problematic specimens. Wesley is sullen and obstinate, the self-pitying victim of Weston's abuse and a bully who torments Emma by urinating on her 4H display. (She is set to give a presentation on the right way to cut up a chicken for frying; previously, she discovered, to her fury, that the chicken she'd raised for this event had been appropriated by Ella, who cooked it for dinner.) Emma might have a hard time with her relatives, but even at a tender age she is capable of running amok, shooting up a bar and landing in jail. "What kind of a family is this?" she asks at one point. If she doesn't know, nobody does.

Since its 1978 premiere, Curse of the Starving Class has enjoyed a prominent place in Shepard's canon, but based on the 1985 revival, when I first caught up with it, it has always seemed -- at least to my eyes -- willfully bizarre, a collection of absurdist tropes that announce the author's themes all too obviously. (For example, the characters are constantly scanning the refrigerator in a futile attempt at satisfying hungers that have little to do with nutrition; before the play is over, one character will devour any number of raw foodstuffs.) But the passage of time, aided by Kinney's lovingly detailed production, casts it in a different light; today, it seems an uncanny depiction of gnawing dissatisfaction in the American heartland. This is a family in name only. The characters' reckless, self-sabotaging pursuit of wealth and escape leads only to ruin; the people who, we are so often told, make up this country's backbone are in fact in an advanced state of collapse.

Possibly because our stages have become so overpopulated with wildly dysfunctional families, the antics of this unhinged tribe now seem relatively naturalistic, the dueling-real-estate-deals plot almost like the well-made construction of a playwright from an earlier generation. In any case, the characters' grasping tendencies, combined with a total lack of concern for their so-called loved ones, seem eerily in synch with those citizens of flyover country, who -- as is widely reported in the news -- feel ignored, patronized, and abandoned, and who are willing to burn down the house of our political system if that's what it takes to be heard. Before Curse of the Starving Class is over, more destruction will be visited on this distressed-to-the-breaking-point bunch.

Kinney's cast is exceptionally adept at serving up this buffet of bad behavior, especially when it comes to switching emotional states, and tactics, on a dime. Maggie Siff is a most ferocious matriarch as Ella, no more so than when handing out to her daughter a set of life lessons that include a hair-raising disquisition on the evils of purchasing sanitary napkins in "old gas station bathrooms." ("You don't know whose quarters go into those machines. Those quarters carry germs.") She also makes a more-than-worthy antagonist for David Warshofsky's Weston: The most tender thing she ever says to him is "Are you having a nervous breakdown or what?" Weston may be execrable, but Ella has a way of cutting through his nonsense. When Emma faces a cornucopia of criminal charges, Weston, who can't help feeling proud, says, "Well, she always was a fireball." "Part of the inheritance, right?" says Ella, in deadpan fashion. "Right," replies Weston. "Direct descendant. Scotch-Irish barbarians." "Well," she snaps, "I'm glad you've found a way of turning shame into a source of pride."

Warshofsky nevertheless makes Weston into a full-fledged terror, especially when he turns up drunk, truculent, and loaded with self-pity -- alternately bullying Wesley ("My poison scares you," he tells him, correctly and with no small satisfaction), dreaming of escape to Mexico, and angrily denouncing the lousy land deal that left him stuck with a couple of acres in the desert. Later, his faith restored, he will spin equally unrealistic fantasies of making a killing with this godforsaken plot in the middle of nowhere: "It's prime location even if it isn't being developed! Only a three-hour drive from Palm Springs, and you know what that's like! You know the kinda people who frequent that place!" His lengthy, first-act drunk scene is an especially scalding account of the dissipation found at the bottom of a bottle.

Although the younger generation is a shade less vividly rendered, Lizzy DeClement's Emma is clearly a case of trouble in the making, beginning with her aptitude for puncturing her mother's dreams. "We'd be in Europe," says Ella. "A whole new place. A whole new world." "But we'd be the same people," says Emma, unleashing a wave of maternal fury with her deadpan common sense. Gilles Geary's Wesley is a true shape-shifter, terrified of his father one moment, shouting down his mother the next, yet forever unable to leave the home he seemingly loathes. (Note the names Ella/Emma and Weston/Wesley; as in virtually all of Shepard's plays, it's not easy for young people to separate from their toxic parents.) Also making a solid contribution is Andrew Rothenberg as the falsely sympathetic lawyer behind everyone's dealings.

In addition to Crouch's set, with its spectacular deconstruction, Natasha Katz's lighting is unfailingly sensitive and on-target; dealing with the scenery's unruly layout, she provides something that you might call fractured sunlight, a look I don't think I've ever seen before. Sarah J. Holden's costumes are solid, as are the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

It all adds up to a furious and very funny look at the souring of American promise, or, perhaps, the myths of the Western expansion and entrepreneurial achievement gone bankrupt. "I migrated to this spot," shouts Weston. "I got nowhere to go! This is it! Backed right up to the Pacific damn Ocean!" Like everyone else in his clan, he can't stand where he is, yet there's no place left to go. --David Barbour

(28 May 2019)

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