Strong, relevant revival of Shepard real estate drama

Posted: March 16, 2012

Sam Shepard, the self-proclaimed "rock-and-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 top-notch.

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), and 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, in which 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 Bruce Norris' follow-up 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 of the Starving Class look almost realistic, a duality captured in the fine and weird set designed by Matt Saunders.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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