Review: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS

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 www.wilmatheater.org

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