by Walter Bender

Lorri Holt and Bruce McKenzie in CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS at Wilma Theater. (Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev)

Sam Shepard’s play CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS is not the usual family comedy. Of course, very little of Mr. Shepard’s work could ever be called “usual.” It can be, however, very entertaining and visionary, and the Wilma Theater has brought this play to life brilliantly.

The first of Shepard’s “family play” series, CURSE is the story of the Tate family, living on a farm in Southern California. The play opens with Wesley (Nate Miller) cleaning up the remnants of the door that his father Weston (Bruce McKenzie) shattered the night before in a drunken rage trying to get into the house. Wesley’s mother Ella (Lorri Holt) comes in and speaks to Wesley about the events of the prior evening and of her unhappiness with her life. Later Emma, the daughter (Keira Keeley) comes inand gets into an argument with her mother over a chicken that Emma was going to use to demonstrate her 4-H project which her mother has cooked to eat. Again later, the father Weston returns, still drunk, and brings with him a bag full of desert avocados that he acquired when he went to see the property he had purchased. Yes, this all sounds very strange…and it is. But the quality of the play, the writing, and the performances is unmistakable.

The main characters in this play were all magnificent. Bruce McKenzie’s Weston was spot-on with his mannerisms, both as a drunk and later as a reformed drinker. His performance was powerful, commanding the stage and the audience’s attention every moment. Lorri Holt’s Ella was convincing as the mother who is worn down by the life she did not choose to lead, and seeks to escape. Nate Miller gives an amazing performance in a very difficult role as Wesley, the son forced to grow up and be responsible at times…and who loses arguably the most in the end. Keira Keeley’s Emma is pubescent angst, dealing with her entrance into adulthood and the conflicting love/hate for her family. They are joined by equally strong performers David Blatt, Keith Conallen, Sam Henderson, Peter Schmitz, and Ed Swidley.

Bruce McKenzie in a scene from CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS at Wilma Theater. (Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev)

The set design is sparse and functional, allowing the cast to move freely…kudos to Matt Saunders for a beautiful design. Director Richard Hamburger keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, not allowing the audience (or the cast) time to take a breath. Lighting was functional, adding to the intensity of some of the scenes, and the special effects were in line with the production itself…loud, proud, and over the top.

The Wilma gives consistently good theater to the Philadelphia audiences. With CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS it goes beyond good to great. This is a must-see production for the performances and the story. Congratulations to cast and crew for a wonderful evening of entertainment.

Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Richard Hamburger
March 14-April 8, 2012, various times
Wilma Theater
265 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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