‘Curse of the Starving Class’: Sam Shepard done right

There is so much that can go wrong in any production of a Sam Shepard play — casting, tone, design — that when everything is done right it’s a cause for celebration.

That’s what has occurred with Gordon Edelstein’s Long Wharf Theatre staging of “Curse of the Starving Class,” so you really need to get to New Haven between now and March 10 when the show closes.

Shepard has always been an acquired taste (one which many people never acquire).

Shepard’s world view is darkly comic and he veers from the real to the surreal with alarming speed, but his take on the lost American dream, collapsing families, and unbridled commerce rolling over almost everything in the past century can be as gripping as the work of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

Unlike those titans, however, Shepard is willing to alienate a good portion of the mainstream theater audience to have his say (this is the reason he has never joined peer David Mamet as a Broadway favorite). He’s like Beckett in his relationship with the audience — an entertainer, to be sure, but a take or leave it kind of guy.

Edelstein has assembled a terrific cast led by frequent collaborator Judith Ivey and Kevin Tighe as the dazed, distracted matriarch and patriarch of a farm family living on the edge of the desert in California.

Ella (Ivey) and Weston (Tighe) are lost in their own dreams of money and eventual comfort somewhere else, so they haven’t really been fit parents to Wesley (Peter Albrink) and Emma (Elvy Yost).

Both parents are so tuned out and self-involved that at key points in the play each of them decides to take a nap on the kitchen table — and there they sleep while their farm and their family is falling to pieces.

Only an actress with great comic timing — and prodigious audience rapport — can make a selfish, detached mother funny, and that’s what Judith Ivey does here. But the comedy she and Edelstein find in a bleak situation doesn’t detract from the seriousness of Shepard’s intentions — the laughs heighten the drama (and the horror).

Tighe is equally skilled at walking a very fine line between hopelessness and hilarity, and the actor gets a few monologues where Shepard’s poetry really sings.

Mention must be made of the great set design by Michael Yeagan who has opened up the rear of the Long Wharf stage space so that the desert really does seem to come right down to the wrecked farmhouse. He also uses that rear space for one of the biggest shock effects in the second half of the play.

Yeargan is a master of custom tailoring his designs to the tricky architecture of modern theaters — he is one of the very few who have conquered the awkward set-up of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center with designs that have used every inch of available space (his work on “South Pacfic” was breathtaking and made every seat in the thrust stage space a good one — something that is most often not the case for folks sitting on the two sides of the stage).

I could go on and on about this great production of “Curse of the Starving Class” but I would hate to take away from your enjoyment of its atmosphere of constant surprise and suspense. It’s a triumph for Edelstein and Long Wharf.

For more information on the show go to www.longwharf.org

Joe Meyers