"Curse of the Starving Class," though written in 1976, is full of relevance to today's era of mortgage and foreclosure crises. The focus of the play is the dysfunctional Tate family. There's abusive, alcoholic patriarch Weston (Marty Pistone), who's deep in debt thanks to real-estate schemes, over-borrowing and a bevy of bad decisions. Also: fed-up, clueless mom Ella (Courtney Walsh); increasingly unhinged son Wesley (Max Sosna-Spear); and clever but manic adolescent daughter Emma (Stanford student Jessica Waldman).
The Tates run a dilapidated farm in rural Southern California, and dad and mom each secretly plot to sell the property (dad because he's in desperate need of cash to pay back his creditors, mom with dreams of escaping her crummy situation and starting over). The kids, though unhappy there, are firmly against losing the only home they've ever known. As the hapless clan destroys itself from within, sharks in the form of developers, eager to get their paws on the lucrative land, are circling, taking advantage of the splintered family's one flawed certainty: that real estate can never depreciate and that their ramshackle home harbors untapped value.
The action takes place over the course of three days, each corresponding to an act, with two brief intermissions. It's all set within the Tates' rundown kitchen, which is nicely designed by Chad Bonaker, although perhaps a bit too cutely for the story's bleakness. The old-fashioned refrigerator plays a key part, as characters constantly look to the fridge as a beacon of hope, only to slam it shut when dissatisfied by what they find (or more often don't find) there. Though the play is set in the 1970s, the choice of older songs, particularly the Dust Bowl-era songs of Woody Guthrie, serve as poignant reminders that California is the land of plenty only for those who can afford it.
"Curse of the Starving Class" is essentially full of unpleasant people doing and saying unpleasant things, which can make for squirm-inducingly compelling entertainment, but leaves one with a sour taste in the mouth. Though the themes of the play are relatable, ultimately the abrasive characters fail to fully emotionally resonate, leaving the audience frustrated.
The four leading actors turn in strong performances — sometimes too strong in the volume/scenery-chewing department. The Tate characters are so often shouting, stomping or slamming doors that the production lacks the dynamic range that might make it more effective. As I heard some fellow viewers behind me wonder, "Does it have to be so loud?" The interplay between the main players is so consistently amped up that the rare quiet moments, including the poetic monologues scattered throughout, are welcome, if sometimes awkward.
Presumably one is meant to root for the Tates as "the little guy" against an all-powerful corporate menace. But Bennett Fisher and Keith Marshall's winning performances as shady lawyer/speculator Taylor and roughneck bar owner Ellis, both of whom stand to gain from the family's misfortune, are so affable that they're impossible to dislike. Though their roles are small, both are standouts.
Scene-stealing, too, is the live sheep in the role of a doomed lamb. He or she (not credited) delivers a surprisingly engaged performance, seeming to follow Pistone's every word in their scenes together and even chiming in with well-timed bleats.
The Tate family members are for the most part unlikeable: selfish, hostile and foolish. You want them to just pipe down much of the time. However, you can't help but feel sympathy for their apparently hopeless struggle to move up in the world, as their nebulous American Dream slips away from them.
As noted in the program, the play is both tragedy and comedy, sometimes making it difficult to discern the intended tone, but it is decidedly darkly unsettling and depressing in the end.
What: "Curse of the Starving Class," a Sam Shepard play presented by Stanford Summer Theater
Where: Pigott Theater, Stanford University
When: Through Aug. 12, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Post-show discussions with the cast and director planned for July 29, Aug. 5 and Aug. 12.
Cost: Tickets are $25 general and $15 for students and seniors, with group discounts available.
Info: Go to http://summertheater.stanford.edu or call 650-798-4072. Note: This production contains strong language, adult content and brief nudity.