A Contemporary "Curse." Sam Shepard Comes to the Long Wharf

Potentially one of the most sharply relevant plays in the current season in New Haven is the Long Wharf Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class.  Shepard has long been a staple of the American theater but the last time one of his plays was given a professional production here was the Yale Rep’s Curse in 2000.  Bad as those times were, we may have even more to curse about currently. According to the show’s director, Gordon Edelstein, the play is “hard to get right,” and yet is perhaps his personal favorite of Shephard’s plays, a play that is both timeless and “startlingly resonant for the moment.”

As a satiric, at times surreal play, Curse has, Edelstein says, “a very specific style” and its action is both “real and not real.”  While those who know Shepard’s work may find entering that particular space familiar, there is bound to be a certain defamiliarization as well.  One thing audiences might be faced with is determining how recognizable the world of Curse of the Starving Class is.  First produced in the late Seventies, the play was one of Shepard’s first attempts at a full-length, three act play.  Somewhat more traditional in form, the play takes on what could be called the locus classicus of American plays: the family drama.  With a father, Weston, a mother, Ella, a son Wesley, and a daughter, Emma, the doubling in the family romance is explicit, and the sense that the characters we’re viewing are both people and types makes for a shifting focus that is rich and suggestive, if also mercurial.  As a writer, Shepard has a unique gift for both the absurdist comedy of modern American types as well as a sense of, at times, tragic grandeur.  His is a poetic idiom that is rarely literal.

For Edelstein, one main reason for the current Long Wharf production is the occasion of working with a cast equal to the play.  “Shepard demands a company of actors skilled in the specifics of his text,” he notes, while praising, in particular, his chief actors’ “extraordinary ability.”  With Judith Ivey, a two-time Tony winner, as matriarch Ella, the production brings together a notable actress, esteemed for her work at Long Wharf in plays such as Shirley Valentine and The Glass Menagerie, with a part that offers much complexity.  Kevin Tighe (Weston) has also worked with Edelstein before at the Long Wharf, most recently in Mourning Becomes Electra.

The main question for a production of Curse, which Edelstein feels is truly a great play by a playwright able to hold his own with Miller, O’Neill and Williams, is: does the production  find “the pitch of the play, the specific tone of the piece?”  “Shepard is sui generis and nothing else is like him,” Edelstein says, so that finding that tone is a matter of “listening carefully to the play.” As a director, Edelstein sees his task as investigating “the linings of the stomach of each play” to understand what that play requires, to find “an imaginative and interesting way to put it on the stage.”  He finds Shepard, whose work he has staged many times, though this will be his first in his 12 years as Artistic Director of Long Wharf, challenging, but is confident that Curse of the Starving Class is very much a contemporary play that will speak to its audience.

Curse of the Starving Class opens on February 20th and runs until March 10th.  Starring Judith Ivey and Kevin Tighe, the play is a darkly comic depiction of  the struggles of a farming family in California as they cope with economic pressures, alcoholism, and internal tensions that question not only the stability of the American Dream but the viability of the American family.