Sam Shepard’s bleak, blackly amusing late-1970s family saga Curse of the Starving Class, back now in a worthwhile Signature Theatre revival, begins with the front door of the Tate farmhouse missing in action, a casualty of the patriarch’s latest drunken rage.
Director Terry Kinney goes a step further – several, actually – for his staging. Before a word is spoken, the squalid home in rural California essentially falls apart – and the disintegration isn’t from a termite infestation that’s mentioned later. It’s a flashy, less-than-subtle flourish that helps bring the fragmented and sometimes frustrating story into focus. Typical of works by Shepard, this play comes soaked with symbols and metaphoric meanderings.
In this group portrait of lower-working-class America, hunger is a prevailing theme, one that’s loudly underscored by a filthy refrigerator that's caked with crud, just like everything else in the kitchen setting designed here by Julian Crouch. People who live here constantly open and stare into the fridge only to find nothing inside. Bellies aren’t the only things left unfilled.
The homeowners, likewise, are empty. Dreams of escape and being anywhere but here loom large. Weston (David Warshofsky), an alcoholic veteran, dives into the bottle, while his alienated wife Ella (Maggie Siff) fantasizes about a life in Europe, where there’s “high art,” she says. “Paintings. Castles. Buildings. Fancy food. History.” To get what they so desperately crave, the spouses covertly try to sell the house and property behind each other’s backs. Their dirty dealing comes back to haunt both of them.
Apples don’t fall far from the tree. Their firstborn, Wesley (Gilles Geary), doesn’t think twice about using the kitchen floor as a toilet and urinates all over posters his sister Emma (Lizzy DeClement) has spent hours making for a school project. Rebellious Emma dreams of flying the coop to Mexico and becoming a mechanic but instead lands herself in jail after shooting up a nearby bar. Initially idealistic Wesley, who tries to fix the busted door and his family, slips into his father’s clothes and sinks into increasingly unsettling behavior. A cop (Flora Diaz), a shady lawyer (Andrew Rothenberg) and an imposing watering hole owner (Esau Pritchett) fill out the action as it proceeds to an explosive, presumably fatal, conclusion.
Running two and a half hours with one intermission, the play flip-flips from comedy to tragedy and plainspoken realism to absurdism in the blink of an eye, if not the bleat of a sheep. Hugging tight to the contours of Shepard’s script is no mean feat, but Kinney’s ensemble handles that capably enough. Geary and DeClement are especially effective. His freaky food binge is bound to make you lose your appetite, and if it doesn’t, what he does with a maggot-plagued lamb will. Her high-octane performance jolts each scene to life – and that’s anything but a curse for this production.