Theatre Review: “Curse of the Starving Class” at the Indy Fringe Building

Matthew Ballinger and Gail Bray in "Curse of the Starving Class" - photo by Kari Ann Stamatoplos

Last Sunday afternoon I drove to the Indy Fringe Building in downtown Indianapolis to see a production of “Curse of the Starving Class,” by Sam Shepard.  There is only one “the” in the title.  It was directed by Gregory Howard and produced by him and Kari Ann Stamatoplos as a labor of love.

I don’t think this chewy, for-adults-only, three-act play about a dysfunctional family that loses its farm gets produced very often, so I am very glad that I got to see it.  The poetry in Sam Shepard’s writing was an unexpected pleasure.  The production itself resonated with me on many levels and stimulated all of my senses.  Technically, I guess, this play is a downer, but there are several funny parts and I didn’t leave feeling only depressed.  I also left feeling eager to talk about the play, and eager to think about it in terms of my own life and in terms of American society.  There is something paradoxically uplifting about witnessing truth told well, with all its layers, even if the truth itself is upsetting. 

After the show I got a chance to chat with the director a bit.  Greg told me that when this play premiered in New York in 1978, the audiences there didn’t get it because its rural setting and its story were so foreign to them.  “The critics thought it was a melodrama,” he said.  “But now (with the current economic situation), everyone gets it.  It is even more relevant today.”

Greg’s own family lost their Indiana farm in 1979, due to banks changing the way they did business with small farms.  It is still hard for him to talk about, but it is the reason he has long felt drawn to this script.

“Sam Shepard speaks to all Americans,” Greg told me. “He really speaks to us.”

I agree.  This Sam Shepard piece feeds me in that it speaks to the many kinds of hunger in American families and American society, and to the difficulty of getting past the past.  Moving forward is not always as simple as just (hah!) “letting go” of the past. Sometimes the consequences of generations have to be played out first.

Oh, this show is heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.  I wish I had time to see it again!

Obie Award Winner

The press release that I received from Greg and Kari Ann says that “Curse of the Starving Class” is an Obie winner.  I confess that I did not know what that meant.  According to http://obies.villagevoice.com/, “Every May, the Village Voice Obie Awards celebrate excellence and achievement in Off-Broadway theatre.” Easier-on-the eyes info can also be found here:  http://www.villagevoice.com/obies/about.

In other words, the Obies are to Off-Broadway what the Tony Awards are to Broadway.

The people who decide which plays go to Broadway might not have fully appreciated this play when it premiered, but the judges at the Village Voice named it “The Best New American Play” that year.

Set as Storyteller

The set for this production was designed by David Strohmeyer and constructed by John Joyner and Matthew Ballinger.  It engages the audience even before any actors appear.  It is mostly black and white.  A black curtain hangs at the back of a black-painted stage.  On the curtain hangs an over-sized black-and-white photo of a pasture.

In contrast, the isolated furniture pieces are almost all a grubby white: an ancient Fridgidaire; a chipped enamel stove that serves only to hold a hot plate; a battered, silver metal-rimmed table; mismatched, white-stained wooden chairs and a bench.

One of the chairs is tipped over.  At the steps leading into the kitchen is a pile of broken lumber – pieces of what used to be a door.  In front of the raised stage, at the level of the audience, is a rusty red wheelbarrow.

“I’ll Fly Away” and other toe-tapping Bluegrass music plays as the audience members find their seats and wonder what happened earlier in this kitchen. (Sound design by Chris Burton.)

The Day Before and the Day Before and the Day Before…

As the play opens, we find out.  Ella, the weary-furious mother of the family, (played with impressive nuances by Gail Bray) last night locked the door on her drunken husband, Weston (John Joyner), and he, in his rage, broke through it.  Now it is morning and he is gone again.  Their teenaged son, Wesley (Matthew Ballinger), is starting to try to repair the door.  Ella, defiantly indifferent, takes some Wonder Bread and a few other supplies from the fridge and begins making breakfast for herself while she matter-of-factly compares her son’s penis to her father’s.  Steam rises from her coffee cup and the smell of bacon frying wafts over the audience.  Each piece of wood that Wesley throws into the wheelbarrow makes a sound as loud as a gunshot. (Kristin Montgomery is props mistress.)

The lights change and Wesley shares with the audience his own splintered recollection of what happened the previous night, based on what he heard from his bedroom.  Then, as the lights change back and he and his mother interact some more, we begin to realize that last night was only the most recent unhappy night in twenty-some years’ worth during this family’s existence on this farm.

The barely teenaged daughter of the family, Emma (Stacey Marie Sipos), enters wearing a sort of Girl Scout uniform and carrying some hand-made charts and posters.

Emma cringes at her mother’s touch as Ella hugs her and tells her that now that she has got her first menstrual period, she should know not to use tampons or sanitary napkins from public restrooms because they are not actually sanitary and you should only put sanitary things “down there.”   Ella discusses Emma’s menstruation with Wesley, too.  Even with her mother’s inappropriateness, though, Emma is bubbly with excitement over her 4-H project: a demonstration of how to cut up a chicken for frying.  That is what the posters are for. (Light and Sound Board Operator Judy Lombardo was also the Chicken Chart Artist.)

But when Emma goes to the fridge, the chicken she had put there to demonstrate with is gone.  Her mother has boiled it and eaten it.

“Take your screaming outside,” Ella tells her.  “I will have no screaming in this house.”  After Emma screams her way out of the house and through the audience, headed down to the stable so she jump on her horse and run away from home, Wesley unzips his pants and pisses on the posters, which are now on the floor by the empty fridge.

“Eww!” the audience thinks.  “What kind of family IS this?”

A cursed one, apparently.

When the father does come stumbling home through the audience, still drunk and frightening, he unpacks a whole grocery bag of artichokes (and nothing but artichokes) into the empty fridge because that is what a man does: he “provides groceries for his family.”

 “Not That Bad Off”

Everyone who comes into the kitchen looks in the refrigerator with hope and yearning and is disappointed.  Yet “we’re not the starving class,” someone in the family says at one point. “We’re not that bad off.”   Someone even says, “We’re doing okay without a front door.”  People sleep on the kitchen table and there is nothing nourishing in the fridge.  No one respects anyone else’s boundaries.  But things could be worse.

Couldn’t they?

It is amazing what you can get used to, and amazing that what you get used to becomes normal.

Desperation and Hopelessness – How Can This End?

And yet…”normal” is not good enough.  They are not doing okay.

Both the mother and the father have plans to sell the farm behind the other’s back.  Both dream of escape but neither seems capable of doing it.  Ella has pinned her hopes on the promises of Taylor (Jim Lucas), a slimy-slick speculator, who says she doesn’t need her husband’s signature in order to sell.  Weston doesn’t remember at first that he already sold the farm to his brassy bartender, Ellis (David Eckard), for a few bucks to get some murder-threatening loan sharks, Emerson (Chris Burton) and Slater (Mark P. Jackson), off his back.  Stage manager Jacqueline Wheat plays Sgt. Malcolm, a law enforcement officer who comes to tell the parents that their daughter is in jail.

“How can all this possibly end?” I wondered in the third act.  I am not going to tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that the ending monologue, though depressing, is vivid and satisfying.

One Quibble

So…I loved the set and other production elements (and there are other wows/ewws/oh my’s that I haven’t told you about!)  – I would have paid the $10 admission just to see them.  I also loved being introduced to this playwright and, as I said earlier, I am very glad to have had the chance to see this award-winning script performed.  Four days later, I’m still chewing on it.  I thought the acting was sometimes a tad uneven – either because an actor wasn’t fully grounded in his or her lines yet or because an actor was so enjoying watching what else was going on on stage that he or she wasn’t fully inhabiting his or her own character – but each actor’s performance also included some very powerful moments and moving interactions with the other characters.  In any case, it was all well-directed and all of the acting was effective enough to keep me involved with the story.

My only real quibble is this (and it is a small one, even for a quibble):

The house lights don’t come up for intermission after either Act One or Act Two.  I understand that keeping the lights off might keep the energy from dissipating and might keep people from leaving the story too much, but it is confusing to be still sitting in the dark after the first act, watching the stage manager mop up the urine from the kitchen floor and wondering if now is when you are supposed to find the restroom yourself.  The intermission bluegrass music, while lovely, is not enough of a cue.  I think if the house lights (not the stage lights) came up at intermission, people would still come back and dig back into the story after they had bought a beer at the table by the box office or stretched their legs or whatever.

But, as I say, this is just a quibble.  For the most part, this was a very satisfying afternoon at the theatre.

Box Office

There are no performances this weekend, but “Curse of the Starving Class” will be performed again at 8pm on Friday, December 4, 8pm on Saturday, December 5, and 3pm on Sunday, December 6, 2009.  All performances are at the IndyFringe Building: 719 East St. Clair Street, Indianapolis, IN.  (The building is a renovated church just east of the intersection of College Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue.)  Please call 317-522-1945 to make a reservation.  Tickets are $10 at the door, cash only.

I should also tell you that the show contains brief nudity – a beautiful body in a sad situation.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(Photo above is by Kari Ann Stamatoplos.  Matthew Ballinger is on the left, Gail Bray on the right.)

6 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Curse of the Starving Class” at the Indy Fringe Building”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful and perceptive insights into the play, Hope. I’ve been thinking about our most recent conversation and yes, at its heart, I truly believe Shepard’s piece is a comedy. Surreal, yes, and even tragic, but funny as all get-out.

  2. My pleasure, Greg and Judy!

    Greg, I’ve been thinking about our conversation, too. I SO wish I had time to see “Curse” again this coming weekend. I would like to watch it with my “surrealist humor” glasses on.

    🙂

    (But anyway, I do agree that there is a lot of humor in this show.)

  3. As always Hope, you’re generosity shines through when you call some of the acting a “tad uneven”.
    🙂 Still, Bray and Ballinger were fantastic and more than reason enough to see this show!!

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