At Curious Theatre, Curse of the Starving Class leaves you hungry for more Shepard

The moment you walk into the theater for Curse of the Starving Class, you know you're in Sam Shepard country — a place suffused with memories of the mythic Old West, but where the breadth and purity of that myth serve only to underline the disappointing realities of contemporary life. You see a gorgeous blue sky arching over the furnishings of a dingy family home — a table with chairs, a kitchen counter and an ancient refrigerator that will get slammed open and closed many times during the course of the evening, its perpetual emptiness symbolizing the spiritual vacuum at the heart of this family's life. And what a family it is.

There's drunken, violent Weston; his two children, manchild Wesley and adolescent daughter Emma; and their wife and mother, Ella, who appears not to care a whit about any of them. These people loathe each other, and they're all filled with longing for escape. Weston and Ella are struggling separately to sell the house so that they can abscond with the money — plans they've hidden both from each other and from their children. And yet, though there's not a morsel of tenderness or love in this family, its members are bound together in a profound, furious and mutually destructive struggle. The references to debt, hunger and housing prices are surprisingly contemporary (the play was first performed in 1978), but they're not the focus, and the details of the house sale are vague. The author's attention is on family dysfunction, and — as always with Shepard — there's a continuing, almost metaphysical subtext expressed in strong images that are not only verbal, but made concrete and visual: the refrigerator; the figure of a man — Weston — asleep on a table piled with dirty clothes (he's already talked about the way clothes hold the essence of their wearers) while his son silently watches; a live lamb in a pen; Wesley pissing on a chart his sister has constructed for her class that shows how to cut up a frying chicken.

A director could, I suppose, make this family somewhat or intermittently sympathetic, stressing the grief and hopelessness underlying their sullen anger, but Chip Walton and his Curious Theatre Company cast have gone in the other direction, and the characters on the stage are even more cloddish than they appear in the script. Sometimes the interpretation edges into caricature, with a couple of cast members looking at their roles from the outside instead of boring deep into them, and there's far too much yelling going on. It's hard to figure out why we should care about these cartoon country bumpkins or follow their doings with any attention. Aided by his character Weston's attempted reformation as well as by some of the most stunning imagery Shepard has to offer, Michael McNeill does move us. We applaud his desire to unite with his family, and particularly his son; we're saddened by his sudden flight. The most interesting interpretation is that of John Jurcheck as Wesley. Clad in oversized overalls with too-short legs that hang on his skinny frame, he's an inarticulate hick, but he also seethes with unexpressed emotion.

The script is not Shepard at his best. It's unfocused, and the soaring, jazzy monologues for which Shepard is famed — and every character has at least one — lack their usual music. Some of the dialogue is labored, some of the metaphors obvious or melodramatic. Still, there are riveting, surprising, evocative details. When Weston decides to take care of his family again, for instance, he stocks the refrigerator with artichokes. Much is made of how bad they smell cooking (like urine); they're also useful as projectiles. And, of course, artichokes have metaphorical resonance — thorny flowers with succulent hearts, covered by tough, prickly leaves and hard to render edible.

But even lesser Shepard still offers dark, ironic humor and startling dramatic moments. Aided by some good performances and the skills of set designer Michael R. Duran and lighting wiz Shannon McKinney, Curious has mounted a solid production to start its new season.