Review: ‘Curse of the Starving Class’

Somewhere on a bleak plateau between realism and ferocious fantasy, 1978's "Curse of the Starving Class" remains a vicious diatribe on the subject of moral hunger. Directed by James Houghton, the final offering in the Signature Theater Co.'s Sam Shepherd season still makes a vivid theatrical statement. Shepard's impoverished Southwestern household offers a dysfunctional family that is past all hope of corrective counseling. Rebellious daughter Emma (Gretchen Cleevely), on the day of her first menstruation, has wickedly plotted her dream of becoming a mechanic so that she might take advantage of a stranded motorist, escalate the nature of the car's problem, then replace the entire engine with a rebuilt unit so that she can sell the good one. She also manages to run amok astride a wild horse, guns a-blazing, through a local bar, and gets herself arrested for possession of a firearm, willful vandalism and animal abuse.

Son Wesley (Paul Dawson), brings a sickly lamb infested with maggots into the family kitchen and urinates on his sister’s 4-H project, a chart illustrating the process of dissecting a frying chicken. Meanwhile, mother Ella (Deborah Hedwall) has eaten the chicken meant for her daughter’s demonstration, and engaged in a shady deal with a crooked real estate agent to sell the family farm and move to Europe. In order to pay a multitude of old debts, it seems Weston (Jude Ciccolella), the abusive and drunken father, has passed over the house deed for a paltry sum to the owner of a local saloon. Weston sobers up and heads for Mexico, with murderous creditors in hot pursuit.

The Shepard landscape, with its lacerating edge, was around long before “Fargo” and “Sling Blade,” and the playwright’s bitter vision strongly survives. Ciccolella brings a frightening sweaty stupor to the role of Weston, and Dawson invests Wesley with a tragic intensity that deftly underscores the family futility. With saucer eyes, Cleevely, as the wayward daughter, reveals a chilling prediction of unharnessed horror.

The stark kitchen set by E. David Cosier offers only a table and its chairs, a gleaming stove and the unyielding refrigerator, Shepard’s white allegorical monster of the starving class.

Curse of the Starving Class

NEW YORK

Production

A Signature Theater Company presentation of the play in three acts by Sam Shepard. Directed by James Houghton. Set, E. David Cosier

Creative

Costumes, Teresa Snider-Stern; lighting, Jeffrey S. Koger; sound, Red Ramona; stage manager, Donald Fried. Artistic director, Houghton. Opened April 27, 1997, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater's Susan Stein Shiva Theater. Reviewed April 25; 109 seats; $25 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Paul Dawson (Wesley), Deborah Hedwall (Ella), Gretchen Cleevely (Emma), Darrell Larson (Taylor), Jude Ciccolella (Weston), Jack R. Marks (Ellis), Kevin Carrigan (Malcolm), Clark Middleton (Emerson), Joe Caruso (Slater)
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