CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company
The stupidest and saddest kind of starvation happens when the refrigerator’s full. Sam Shepard calls it a “poison,” an “explosive in the blood,” but mainly in Curse of the Starving Class it’s just that, a curse, ensuring that every move made by the members of this embattled Tate family ends up thrusting them together and tearing them apart. With no roots in the land they’re desperate to sell, with just their fragmenting fantasies of flying off to Europe or disappearing in Mexico without a trace, the family has nothing to hold it together — except the curse. The funniest, most bitter thing in Curse is the gargantuan energy each Tate expends to deny the curse that feeds on those frustrations.
In Buried Child (written shortly after Curse), Shepard deconstructed the American family by spinning out a tighter web of images and symbols (particularly the title creature) than he wrapped Curse in. But Curse, with more wildfire chaos surging through it, makes for some hilarious incongruities. Weston Tate, a drunken, brawling derelict of a father, is deep in debt to Taylor, a shyster lawyer and land speculator who turns out to be his wife’s boyfriend. Weston is trying to sell the house and land without telling his wife, Ella. Ella, desperate to give the family a new start in Europe (which they know would be none at all: “We’d all be the same people,” whimpers the daughter), is attempting a similar steal. (Her Taylor says he knows some big investors who’d want to condo-ize the property.) His dream world full of model airplanes and a loving family, son Wesley views Taylor suspiciously as the “head zombie” who’s going to sell out their futures. His petulant, renegade sister Emma wants to “get out of this place” by running off south of the border where she can forget English and fix cars for exorbitant prices. If she can’t do that she’ll shoot up a local bar and turn to crime.
Every escape attempt only messes up the others’ plans.
The food incidents suggest a lot. Early on we learn Wesley gobbled down the chicken his sister had grown and killed for a class project. He then pisses on the anatomical chart Emma drew to illustrate the bird’s innards. At separate times, Weston and Ella cook real bacon, ham, and eggs for the kids but Wesley and Emma never eat it. Coming back from a debauch, Weston fills the busy refrigerator with stinking artichokes nobody can stand to eat. In the final act Wesley slaughters the family lamb, then stuffs his face with anything he can grab from the fridge. Throughout Curse no Tate ever eats the same stuff or at the same time as any other.
Clothes, too, form a bond that shatters. Weston brings home his dirty laundry for Ella to wash, but, in a remarkable third-act transformation, he ends up washing it and everybody else’s soiled clothes. (Pathetically, he says he feels he’s touching his family by smelling their garments.) Attempting to escape, Emma dirties her riding outfit when a skittish horse drags her through the mire. And, in a metamorphosis that’s the reverse of his father’s, Wesley digs out of the garbage Weston’s filthy rags and puts them on. Again, every gain is another’s loss.
The play boils down to a central, unforgettable image. The reformed Weston is ecstatically telling the soon-to-be slaughtered lamb about an eagle that swooped down to pick up some lamb testicles Weston planted on the roof of a shed. For Weston the memory represents a glorious vicarious thrill; in retelling it he soars with the eagle. But in the play’s final moment Wesley and his mother, now shattered by the knowledge of how much they’ve sold each other out, complete the story. The eagle, it seems, also swept up in its talons a cat that was grabbing for its share of the entrails. In midair cat and bird clawed each other’s guts out . . . The Tates find themselves equally and irredeemably cursed and starving.
They’re also endlessly fascinating. In this, the third offering by the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, Patrick Kerwin’s spontaneous-combustion staging underlines with a vengeance the Tates’ monumental untogetherness, as chirpy 50s tunes reminiscent of Leave It to Beaver set us up for Shepard’s various kills. Though the energy level shifts wildly and Kerwin occasionally pushes the white trash stereotypes longer than the action requires (and some of the pauses as well), he also digs deep enough to uncover the self-destruction as much as illustrate it. As Weston, a perfect case of father knows worst, Richard Cotovsky reeks of raunch and whiskey-soured regrets, his bellowing self-pity overriding his later freakish self-reform (“I’m being taken for a ride by every one of you!” changing to a later confession of how a family’s a “thing of nature”). Looking haggard but still too young for Ella, Jo-Ann DeAngelo exudes the right hair-curler grunginess but tends to fall back on shtick — Thelma Ritter-style wisecracks and a Lucille Ball crying jag — a big mistake when playing a Shepard archetype.
Though he could be quicker on the uptake, Larry Figliulo solidly suggests Wesley’s elaborately doomed rebellion without a cause. (By Curse’s end Figliulo poignantly makes us feel the lamb he ends up sacrificing is just another form of Wesley.) As the nose-picking, bratty kid sister Emma (who’s suffering throughout from her own personal “curse”), Dawn Ashley overdoes the valley girl whining, but her little-girl warble effectively undercuts Emma’s tomboy outrageousness. It makes the hard egg Emma strangely and surprisingly soft-boiled and very, very sad. Awash with opportunism, William Gallagher is the smooth-faced, land-eating Taylor, one of several Shepard confidence men who batten off of other folks’ lack thereof. Erupting at times with a forced fury, Eric Young has a heavy cameo as the bully boy to whom Drunken Weston gave the deed to the land. By the end of Curse we know he won’t, alas, inherit the curse. A very portable malediction, it’s something the still-suffering Tates have worked a lot harder to keep than they ever did their land.