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Sunday, 21 November 2010 12:34

A maginificent Curse at Washington University

Written by Mark Bretz
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A maginificent Curse at Washington University
wustl.edu/David Kilper

Sam Shepard shocked the sensibilities of American theater when his literary voice first was raised in the 1960s and '70s. At first specializing in absurdist works, his style evolved into an alternate realism, a landscape where emotions and thoughts are as exaggerated as the mythic value of the American West. Such is the setting of Curse of the Starving Class, the first of Shepard's trio of works about the destructive dynamics of a family dysfunctional with a capital 'D.' He followed that foray into family foibles with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child and the Gothic tale, True West.

All three of these dramas focus on a particularly bizarre family, where reality and fantasy seem to interconnect just beyond an ethereal horizon. The Washington University Performing Arts Department last weekend presented a magnificent production of Curse under the carefully crafted direction of Annamaria Pileggi.

Somewhere in the desert sits the dilapidated structure known as the Tate home. It's disintegrating not only physically but within the souls and hearts of its inhabitants as well. Son Wesley dreams of a more tranquil, normal existence with a future that has some legitimacy as he discards what's left of the front door that was destroyed the previous night by his alcoholic father Weston. As he piles the remnants into a wheelbarrow, his conversation with his unsympathetic mother Ella consists of a series of shouts and yelling matches.

Ella's daughter Emma has her own ideas about escape, perhaps through education and achievement. Her homework, however, is desecrated by her indifferent brother, while her mother awaits a young attorney who has promised to handle the sale of the Tate property to a developer for a handsome price. The resulting cash will enable Ella to take the family to live in Europe amongst the genteel inhabitants and escape the desperate existence she notes befalls members of the "starving class."

Weston, however, has his own ideas about property values as he pursues his own sale of his land. He also finds himself heavily in debt to some unsavory sorts because of his alcoholic binges and reckless financial ventures. If there's a way out of this hopeless morass of despondency, it isn't clear to any of the Tates.

Pileggi's student cast embodies the raw, surreal poison in Shepard's characters and delivers a performance that consistently satisfies the audience's taste for the ghoulish and ghastly with a horrifically funny presentation. There's fabulous work by Amanda Spector, whose ongoing rants and delirious dreaming as Ella prop up the elusive plans of the cancerous Tate clan. As Emma, Rachel London delights with her brash, stylishly realized portrayal of the daughter who craves normality and an escape to stability.

Pete Winfrey conveys the quietly disturbing demeanor of Wesley, understating the mute and paralyzed dismay of the son with his squalid surroundings, and Tim Taylor rampages through the meticulously ramshackle set designed by Mike Loui, bellowing incoherent absurdities until he miraculously comes to his senses and then seemingly goes about making the natural disaster of a home presentable.

Loui's scenic tableau is appropriately shabby, featuring mismatched chairs surrounding a dingy kitchen table that doubles as a sleeping area for the forlorn family, a creaky refrigerator and a makeshift stove. Becca Dieffenbach's props include a portable pen for Chanel, a scene-stealing sheep that Wesley brings inside to nurture on its road to slaughter, as well as that antique icebox and a bushel basket of artichokes that Weston brings to fill the empty refrigerator and the howling hunger of his clan. Diana Chu's costumes range from the slick suit worn by the avaricious attorney (well played by Gabriel Abramowitz) to the filthy rags adorning Weston.

Scott Griffith's stark lighting and Zach Fullenkamp's shrill sounds complement the look and feel of the presentation, which also features fine supporting work by Chris Kammerer as an opportunistic bar proprietor, Connor McEvoy as a local sheriff and Randy Brachman and Mitch Eagles as a pair of venal enforcers in pursuit of Weston.

Shepard's probing dissection of the American family and its persistent search for elusive happiness remains powerful more than 30 years after its original performance in 1978. The engrossing and engaging production mounted by Pileggi and her charges was a handsomely realized presentation of Shepard's penetrating power.

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