Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Curse of the Starving Class": ☼ ☼ 1/2 NOOSE

Sam Shepard has earned a reputation as one of America's great playwrights. This reviewer would rank him right behind Eugene O'Neill in giving theater goers nowhere to hide and nothing to look forward to for the rest of their pathetic lives, after which most of them will die miserable, lonely deaths, unless they have done something noble while they're alive, which allows them to be killed in an exploding car.

In Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class," you feel the disconnect right away. Loy Arcenas's brilliant set, coupled with subtle lighting by Japhy Weideman, brings us into a farmhouse kitchen, complete with oil cloth on the kitchen table, an earlier generation's peeling wallpaper and an old refrigerator which is always empty. But the scene is far from homey. The kitchen is not on stage level but has been built up on rocks, and is surrounded by dry, barren moonscape on all sides. The effect is harshness. Outside is forbidding and inside is no picnic either.

With Jack Willis as Weston, the dad (based on Shepard's own World War II bomber pilot father), and spunky Nicole Lowrance as his daughter Emma, the production has two characters who breathe life into their every scene. Willis is honest and convincing as a doomed drunk, and Lowrance equally convincing as a sharp young woman with dreams, which means she's also doomed. But Weston and Emma aren't on the stage all that much. Most of the first act is taken up with long, philosophical monologues by Jud Williford as Wesley, the confused son, and cynical diatribes by his mother, Ella, played by Pamela Reed.

Well, who wouldn't be confused and cynical in this family? THERE'S NOTHING TO EAT! The Mom cooks the chicken the daughter needed for her 4-H presentation, the son pees on the daughter's project, the father has been on a bender for days, or years, oh, and the daughter has just gotten her first period.

Though the show, which first opened in New York in 1978, has been recently rewritten and reduced from three acts to two, it still feels long. There is what appears to be the ending in Act Two, but then...just kidding. More betrayal, sadness and that exploding car.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Curse of the Starving Class" Two and a Half Stars with a Noose. (The noose is new and will be applied, when necessary, to works by Sam Shepard and Eugene O'Neill.) Shepard fans who have already been hardened by Buried Child, The Tooth of Crime, La Turista, Tongues, Savage Love and True West are sure to find equal sustenance with "Curse of the Starving Class."

"Curse of the Starving Class"
American Conservatory Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue.-Sun. $17-$82


Anonymous said...

Best to use the noose before you sit through this play. Why suffer unnecessarily?

DAK said...

Come on, Hanky Girl. You had free tickets, right? You couldn't sit through Act Two? Yes, we considered it.