Monday, February 8, 2016


By Toby Zinman For the Inquirer



By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer

Sam Shepard, the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth,” rides again at the Wilma Theater, where Curse of the Starving Class is having a strong revival. Obsessed with salvation (unavailable), the frontier (closed), the land (barren) and the family (busted), Curse is as relevant today as it was in 1977 when Shepard wrote it.  Director  Richard Hamburger manages to balance the funny and fierce, the repulsive and the pitiful. The cast is topnotch.

The first of Shepard’s family plays, Curse is about a family living in a wrecked house on a wrecked farm in the middle of nowhere in the middle of California.  Everybody’s always opening the refrigerator door: “Slams all day long and through the night. SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! What’s everybody hoping for, a miracle! IS EVERYBODY HOPING FOR A MIRACLE?” But the refrigerator is empty.

Weston (the outstanding Bruce McKenzie), the more-or-less—mostly less-- head of the family is a drunk who is seriously in debt to seriously dangerous people. His ditzy wife (Lorri Holt), his son (the fearless  Nate Miller) and his daughter ( the brilliant Keira Keeley) all blunder through their lives, without a realistic plan or a shred of self-knowledge.

The plot is complicated, undeveloped and implausible: The plot is not the point. The sacrificial lamb in a playpen in the kitchen being nursed back to health (good luck with that); baths and laundry and breakfast will not cure what ails these people.

Like so many American plays, Curse  is about real estate, with all the implications that extend beyond the security of a house to a sense of belonging, a place in the world. Consider this sampling: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night where the summer house that isn’t really a home for Mary is the pivot of the plot; in Lorraine Hansberry’s A  Raisin in the Sun, the crux of the drama is buying a house, as it is in Norris’ followup play, Clybourne Park;  in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Belle Reve has been lost through generations of “epic fornications”; in August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, the old neighborhood is going to be torn down, slated for “minority redevelopment,” and in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, real estate has become merely a swindle.

Given the current state of the mortgage/real estate market, the absurdities of Shepard’s Curse look almost realistic, a duality captured in the fine and weird set designed by Matt Saunders.

Through April 8 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets $39-66. Information: 215-546-7824 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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