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Death of the American Dream

Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard Suffolk University Theater, Temple Street, Boston Through April 20

By Jonathan B. Propp

WESLEY IS PISSING on his sister's 4-H diagrams of how to carve a broiled chicken. Emma, in a fit of anger, throws empty tin cans at the farmhouse because her mother took the broiler out of the freezer and ate it. Their father, Weston, came home drunk last night and broke down the front door. Ella, the mother, stands wearily in the kitchen and wonders, "What kind of a family is this?"

SamShepard, brashest of the "new breed" playwrights, would have us believe this is the typical family in pursuit of the American dream, and nearly succeeds. His Obie-Award-winning Curse of the Starving Class, given its premiere in a strong, spare production by the Reality Theater and the Suffolk Theater Company, batters us with symbolism and seduces us with humanity. It never fails to provoke, but still comes up short of theatrical mastery. Having garnered an Obie and a Pulitzer (for the recent New York production of Buried Child) in two years, Shepard seems on the verge of his finest work.

Shepard has the gift of language, which rescues the sledgehammer style of his message. The slang tumbles across the stage like a wild Western river, thoughts as big as the countryside: "You look like forty miles of rough road," says Weston to his son. The frontier reduces life to its primal elements, revealing raw humanity, a force as powerful and perverse as the worthless farm the characters inhabit.

Weston went west to grab his share of the American Dream. He has a plot of land all his own--he walks through the house nude to experience the joy of ownership--two old cars, a chunk of desert land sold to him by a con man, and more debt than he can handle. The dream turns into the nightmare, Weston turns into a drunkard, and the refrigerator stands empty.

"We are not members of the starving class," his wife maintains desperately. Ella plans to sell the house her lawyer friend and lover, Taylor, who wants to build a housing development. "Everyone wants a piece of land," he declares, "so pitch in and play ball, or you'll lose." Meanwhile, Weston has traded the house to the local tavern owner, a degenerate called Ellis, to pay his debts.

YET SOMETHING in this family binds it together in its distress--a love beneath childlike dreams of baseball and airplanes, the roughhousing and wristwrestling. The "liquid dynamite" in Weston's veins flows for Wesley and Emma also, and they lash out furiously against the invaders threatening the simple foundation of their lives. The system must prevail, however, and in this big, barren land it often does so brutally.

Director Vincent Murphy occasionally falls into the trap of overemphasizing Shepard's already heavy symbolism with a plentitude of baseball, airplane and other "American" images. Like several of his contemporaries--most notably John Guare--Shepard rarely rests content with social realism as a medium for his message. The boldness of his landscape and the near-lunacy of his characters (an extreme to which we all can be driven, he suggests) demand a liberal dose of absurdism which Murphy integrates well into the stream of action. As a result, Shepard's outrageous humor barrels along to the inevitable tragedy.

The outlandish dramatic style requires deeply emotional acting which the Reality's company fortunately delivers. As Emma, Kathleen Patrick brims with the newly-found sexual energy (she is in the midst of her first period) of a frustrated 4-H girl who wants to be an auto mechanic in Baja California. Patrick displays exquisite timing and movement in this portrait of innocence giving way to restlessness--her soliloquy to the empty refrigerator rings both poignant and hilarious.

Chris McCann, fresh from the New York production of Buried Child, gives perhaps the most surrealistic performance as Emma's older brother Wesley. With stylized actions and loose-hung posture, McCann shows a simple-minded soul whose childishness belies his age and size. All that matters for Wesley are his baseball dreams and the pungent smells and sounds of the Western life. By the end, as Wesley dons his father's clothes and habits, it is clear that the curse passes on from one generation to the next.

As the mother, Ella, Jean Comstock portrays the only member of the family without liquid dynamite coursing through her veins, and her performance makes it uncertain what exactly is there, other than dreams of Europe. Although expressively stooped and wearied, this Ella remains curiously unmotivated, leaving us unclear as to how she got into this mess in the first place.

Tim McDonough, as the battered but not broken Weston, commands the stage with more than the mere physical presence of his wiry frame. Weston can never keep his passion for living more than a shade below the surface, whether he's breaking down the door or erecting a new one to keep the world out, and McDonough provides this desperate vitality. When he repents his first act drunkenness (and his entrance in a garbage can, surely an inspired bit of dramatic symbolism) with typical quixotic fervor, the futility becomes only more apparent. He can rant and rave but never escape the curse.

At the end of the first act, Weston awakens from a stupor alone on stage. Although he doesn't know it, the farmhouse is no longer his. He crosses to the refrigerator, opens it--empty--and squats silhouetted in the light from the great refrigerator God. A young lamb rests by the stove, brought there to recover from maggots, tempting Weston's hunger. The family is to be displaced by housing for families who presumably can afford to eat--a poignant irony for a farming and gambling man. For the system hurts you as often as it rewards you, and once you're on the treadmill there's no getting off; like an eagle with claws sunk deep into its prey, the Great American Dream fights you until you can no longer fight back.

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