After years of unhappiness, Ella (Irene Ziegler) consorts with a lawyer hoping to sell the house and escape to Europe. Her husband, Weston (Joe Inscoe), spends considerable time in the local drunk tank. Ella (Amy Sproul), the daughter, intends to become a mechanic and disappear into the heart of Mexico. Wesley (Justin Dray), the son, only wants to hold the family together. And though no one is starving, each of them wants to find something different in the perpetually empty refrigerator.
Though Ziegler and Sproul bat around the material with wacked-out precision, the script concentrates most on the relationship between Wesley and his father. Justin Dray is sensational as Wesley, a son who is inheriting his father's "poison." Abusive to his mother and condescending to his sister, he becomes a scared little kid when he's near his father. Though he loathes his dad, he also wants his approval. It's a brave performance in more ways than one.
As the father, Inscoe is Ernest T. Bass funny. The interaction between father and son is not especially touching; it's not that kind of play. But it is provocative because of the dark alchemy between Inscoe and Dray.
Under Morrie Piersol's sure-handed direction, characters shoot off in improbable, irrational directions. A character might suddenly remove his clothes or commit a random act of aggression. Early in the play, Wesley erects a fence in the middle of the kitchen and places a lamb iside it. "It's got maggots," he tells his mother. At first it seems like an unmotivated act typical of absurdist theater. But, in time, it begins to make sense to us. Shepard steadfastly refuses to stay in any box.
It's only in the script's ending that Shepard's right-stuff attitude begins to fail. Though the bit of cowboy poetry at the end is lyrical enough, many will feel cheated by the unresolved plot threads and the absence of a traditional climax.
But the strength of the play is not the story or even the crazed characters. It's in the mytho-Wal-Mart void that Shepard creates for us. From the grungy Southwestern set to the dreamlike lighting to the quasi-spooky sound design, every part of this fine production helps open a view into our collective subconscious.
In a consumer-oriented civilization, many question our values and yearn for something more meaningful from life. We pursue the American dream, but we're uncomfortable with the pursuit. Isn't it a neat thing that we can visit a theater and examine these fears and desires at such close range? S
"The Curse of the Starving Class" continues through March 23 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $15. Call 355-2001.
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