As the stage lights come up in the intimate Pigott Theater on the Stanford campus, we see a realistic kitchen of the 70s complete with range and refrigerator, and we are introduced to the down-and-out Tate family.
Last night Weston Tate, an ex WW II bomber pilot who is down on his luck, went on a drunken rampage; the pieces of the shattered door are strewn about the kitchen of the Central Valley farm Weston shares with his wife Ella, teen-age daughter Emma and his almost grown son Wesley.
The play begins; Wesley is throwing the pieces of the door, crash, bang, into an old wheelbarrow. His mother, Ella, comes into the kitchen dressed in a faded housecoat. She begins to nag at Wesley in a loud voice. He should leave the cleanup for his father; serve him right.
Wesley ignores his mother and he sinks into a reverie; he begins talking to the audience, telling us about last night’s dustup, which he heard from his bedroom as he stared up at his model airplane collection. As Wesley concludes his monologue, his sister Emma enters wearing her sparkling white 4-H uniform. The scene shifts to mother and daughter. They begin a loud discussion centering on menstruation and where to buy sanitary napkins—Emma is having her first period, or, as Wesley calls it, the ‘curse’.
Stanford Summer Theater has staged a provocative revival of Sam Shepard’s family tragedy, Curse of the Starving Class, which was written in 1976 when Shepard was working as the playwright in residence at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. The play is chaotic, loud and absurd, but it’s good theater. The SST production is entertaining and provocative, but shocking at times. There is a warning in the program that the performance has “adult content and brief male nudity.”
The World Premiere of Curse of the Starving Class was staged in 1977 at the Royal Court in London and the US Premiere was held off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival on March 2, 1978. Shepard’s Buried Child was staged in the same year and both plays were awarded off-Broadway (OBIE) awards. Buried Child also earned Shepard the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979.
Emma is a 4-H club member; she is preparing a demonstration ‘How to cut up a fryer chicken,’ but the chicken has vanished from the refrigerator. Someone ate it. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise the audience, given the usually empty state of the Tate’s refrigerator. Emma’s speaks to the empty refrigerator:
Hello? Anything in there? We’re not broke, you know, so you don’t have to hide! I don’t know where the money goes to but we’re not broke! We’re not part of the starving class! Any corn muffins in there? Hello! Any produce? Any rutabagas? Any root vegetables? Nothing? It’s all right. You don’t have to be ashamed. I’ve had worse. I’ve had to take my lunch to school wrapped up in a Weber’s bread wrapper. That’s the worst. Worse than no lunch. So don’t feel bad. You’ll get some company before you know it! You’ll get some little eggs tucked into your sides and some yellow margarine tucked into your –You haven’t seen my chicken have you? . . .
–Emma, Act I, Scene II
Maybe some food will come to fill up the empty box, but don’t count on it.
Curse of the Starving Class was a prophetic vision of the events leading up to the California housing crisis of 2010—a shady developer wants to buy the Tate property to build low-cost housing in California’s central valley. Actually, that very scene was repeated over and over in the seventies and today we have a crisis. Many houses are vacant, the market for new houses has disappeared, foreclosures are endemic and Stockton, the largest city in the central valley, is bankrupt. Who would have thought that was possible in California?
In the play, an unscrupulous land speculator named Taylor seduces Ella with his talk of development riches. She believes his story and is ready to sign over her property. She dreams of moving to Europe with the money, but she has a premonition that this plan too will fail—failure is the curse of the starving class:
“Do you know what this is? It’s a curse. I can feel it. It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming. Even when you try to change it. And it goes back. Deep. It goes back and back to tiny little cells and genes. To atoms. To tiny little swimming things making up their minds without us. Plotting in the womb. Before that even. In the air. We’re surrounded with it. It’s bigger than government even. It goes forward too. We spread it. We pass it on. We inherit it and pass it down, and then pass it down again. It goes on and on like that without us.
—Ella, Act II, Scene I.
Meanwhile, Weston has been drinking at the Alibi Club and he has managed to sell the farm to Ellis the owner of the club for $1500. Weston is desperate for the money because he has bad debts with some tough characters. Shepard modeled the character Weston on his own father, who was a WW II bomber pilot and alcoholic. Both Weston and Shepard’s father had symptoms of what we now call Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
In a moving and emotional scene, Weston wakes from sleep (he was passed out on the kitchen table) and becomes lucid—he gathers the dirty clothes of all the family, washes, dries and folds them neatly on the table and falls into reverie, talking to a sick lamb that is being kept warm in the kitchen:
I remember now. I was in hock. I was in hock up to my elbows. See, I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. It couldn’t get worse, so I figured it’d just get better. I figured that’s why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn’t be so generous if they didn’t figure you had it comin’ in. At some point it had to be comin’ in. So I went along with it. Why not borrow if you know it’s coming in. Why not make a touch here and there. They all want you to borrow anyhow. Banks, car lots, investors. The whole thing’s geared to invisible money. You never hear the sound of change anymore. It’s all plastic shuffling back and forth. It’s all in everybody’s heads. So I figured if that’s the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go in debt for a few grand if all it is is numbers? If it’s all an idea and nothing’s really there, why not take advantage? So I just went along with it, that’s all. I just played ball.
—Weston, Act II, Scene II.
It’s hard to believe that Shepard wrote this in 1976.
Well, there is a tragic ending, of course. The curse cannot be ignored or repealed.
I enjoyed this production by SST; there is great acting by the “old hands” and by the younger actors as well. I liked the set and the lighting and, of course, it’s always a pleasure to watch a play in Pigott Theater.
As usual, Sunday matinée was followed by a question/answer session with cast and director on stage. Bravo! The lamb appeared interested and happy when petted by the stage manager during scene changes–apparently the lamb is a born actor. Next stop Actor’s Equity.
There is a short film clip that describes the play and shows the actors performing in the present production. The clip was published in the Stanford News for July 2012. If you can’t see the play, watch the clip and go to the next SST production.
Week 26-2012: Curse of the Starving Class, Sam Shepard (1978).