NEW HAVEN — Modern American drama tends to focus on the family, the dysfunctional family, that is.
If you think about the giants of the American theater — Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams — they’re not talking about God, or fate, or social class, or hypocritical morality, or what it means to be Irish. They are exploring the ways in which the children are burdened with the sins of the parents, and the desperate, but doomed struggle to be free of a tainted heritage, while determined mothers, whether gallant or monstrous, persist in clinging to their misguided illusions.
The cause of the dysfunction, and the nature of the delusions will vary, and allow for both colorfully dramatic scenes and insightful commentary on a particular time and place that corresponds closely to the playwright’s own biographical circumstances. Thus O’Neill’s father and brother drank themselves to death, Miller’s father lost everything in the Depression, and Williams’s mother arranged to have his beloved sister lobotomized, material which was transformed into their most famous works.
Playwright Sam Shepard fits squarely into this tradition. While his earliest efforts, staged in the cafes and mini-theaters of the East Village, were influenced by the European Absurdist movement, by the 1970s he had found a new direction in the cycle of “family plays.” These works explored Shepard’s own roots in a poverty-stricken California ranch family, tyrannized by an abusive alcoholic father, who died on a New Mexico highway because he was too drunk to get out of the way of a fast moving semi.
These plays, which include Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, as well as the first in the series, Curse of the Starving Class, combine Shepard’s characteristic mix of grubby realism, black humor, and grotesque plot twists. Now Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein has chosen to stage a Shepard work for the first time in that theater’s history. And while the play is nearly forty years old, it is amazingly relevant today.
Someone once declared that “Drink is the curse of the working class,” to which Oscar Wilde quipped “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Shepard’s title is a play on this epigram, as he depicts a family who represent the starving class. But what are they starving for, and what is their particular curse?
On a literal level the play is set in the shabby kitchen of a ramshackle farmhouse, with a refrigerator that is absolutely bare. Food gets talked about a lot, and Wesley, the son of the family, lets us know that he is very, very hungry — and angry about it.
There is no door to the house — Weston, the father, kicked it apart in a drunken rage when his wife, Ella, locked him out because he was threatening to kill her.
But Shepard — also an award winning actor — was a poet before becoming a playwright, and there are layers of metaphor here as well. This is a play about the American dream, and the idea is that the characters hunger for some kind of deeper spiritual satisfaction that they cannot find. For Weston, who settled here after spending the War as a bomber pilot, the farm was once a dream of “the west,” a frontier where he could raise sheep and chickens and horses and grow crops and make a viable life for his family.
Now the farm, like the family, is burned out. The horse is crazy, the sheep are infested with maggots, and the chickens are dead.
Human parasites have descended on the region, stimulating their appetites for phony fantasies: Taylor, a slick-talking conman, sells Weston a worthless parcel of land in New Mexico; mysterious money lenders push him to borrow money for a fancy car, and a club owner sets him up sign away the whole farm to cover his bar debts.
Ella, the family matriarch, is lured into a pipe dream of her own. Imagining that she can run away to a new life in Europe by selling the farm to Taylor, he is in fact swindling her as well, planning to carve it up into more tiny parcels to sell to unwitting buyers.
Wesley and Emma, the children, are each damaged by their clueless and thoughtless parents. Emma wants to run away, perhaps to a life of crime. Wesley fights against turning into the father whom he both loves and hates.
It’s a bitter, painful story, and yet, like all of Shepard’s plays, it has moments of appalling hilarious comedy using sight gags and plot twists. Beautifully acted by the entire cast, it is an especially challenging vehicle for Peter Albrink as Wesley, who gets to show his anger by behaving very badly.
Judith Ivey as Ella, and Kevin Tighe as Weston have some terrific negative chemistry between them, and Elvy Yost is scary as the kid sister who recognizes that they are each out for themselves in this tough world, so why not choose a life of crime.
In the wake of the mortgage and banking crises that sent our economy into freefall because greedy speculators preyed on millions of people, encouraging them to sign away their lives to buy properties they could never really afford, Curse of the Starving Class remains a timely play.
Finally a word about Michael Yeargan’s set. The broken down kitchen fades into a sandy desert that stretches into seemingly infinite distance across the theater’s floor, suggesting a geographical wasteland that is a fitting reminder of the spiritual one enveloping the characters.
This is fine, serious theater, cut out for thinking people with a strong sense of humor.
(Performances continue until March 10. Visit LongWharf.org for curtain and ticket details.)