PAD presents Curse of the Starving Class

Sam Shepard classic at Hotchner Studio Theatre Nov.18-21

Junior Amanda Spector as Ella and senior Tim Taylor as Weston in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. Download hi-res image. Photo by David Kilper/WUST Photo Services.

The American dream is a fragile thing. Just ask the Tate family, a bickering, dysfunctional clan struggling to retain its dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of an unforgiving Western desert.

Welcome to Curse of the Starving Class, Sam Shepard’s bitterly funny — and disturbingly prescient — family drama. This month, Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present the play for five performances in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.

Shows begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18, 19 and 20; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 20 and 21. The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.

Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office and all MetroTix outlets.

For more information, call (314) 935-6543.

Clockwise from top left: Amanda Spector as Ella, Tim Taylor as Weston, Rachel London as Emma and Peter Winfrey as Wesley. Download hi-res image. Photo by David Kilper/WUSTL Photo Services.

Written in 1978, Curse of the Starving Class is the first of Shepard’s “family tragedies,” a series that further includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (also 1978) and True West (1980).

Set in rural California, the story follows two generations of Tates: Weston, an alcoholic dreamer, and wife Ella, whose oblivious demeanor masks wild mood swings, along with their two children, the brooding idealist Wesley and the rebellious teenager Emma.

Deeply in debt, thanks to years of Weston’s bungled schemes, the four find themselves violently at odds when Ella concocts a plan to raise money by selling their property.

“This is a family that is down and out,” says Annamaria Pileggi, senior lecturer in the PAD, who directs the cast of nine. “They’re starving, and not only in the physical or economic sense. They’re starved for intimacy, for love, for companionship. Their needs aren’t being met and they’re literally wasting away.

“Shepard’s theme is the dissolution of American family life,” Pileggi continues. “He specifically focuses on the relationship between Weston and Wesley — how the sins of the father are passed down to the son, and how that inheritance affects the rest of the family.”

Things come to a head when Ellis, proprietor of the Alibi Club, a local watering hole, arrives with a fistful of cash. Mother and children argue over the funds and Emma gets arrested, after riding a horse into the Alibi and shooting up the walls.

Meanwhile, Wesley is beaten by his father’s creditors and Weston urges his son to flee the country — advice that Emma attempts to implement for herself.

“Shepard is one of contemporary theater’s finest writers of non-realism,” Pileggi says. “This is a recognizably American landscape, and these characters are all people that we can recognize in the world, and yet the structure and experience of the play are deeply unsettling, almost Absurdist. Shepard is constantly displacing audience expectations and assumptions in a way that’s almost nightmarish.

“That said, Curse of the Starving Class is a very funny play,” Pileggi says. “We do recognize ourselves in these characters, which keeps us from simply dismissing their foibles.

“It’s a wonderful balance that Shepard strikes, and something that I hope we’re able to achieve in this production.”

The cast is led by sophomore Peter Winfrey as Wesley and junior Rachel London as Ella, with senior Timothy Taylor and junior Amanda Spector as Weston and Emma.

Also featured are senior Chris Kammerer as Ellis; junior Gadi Abramowitz as Taylor, the real estate agent who may or may not sell the family homestead; and freshman Conner McEvoy as police sergeant Malcolm. Rounding out the cast are junior Randall Brachman and sophomore Mitch Eagles as the murderous thugs Emerson and Slater.

Set designs are by Michael Loui, scene shop supervisor in the PAD, with lighting by senior Scott Griffith. Costumes are by Diana Chu, a sophomore in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Sound is by Sean Savoie, lecturer in drama and coordinator of the PAD’s Design-Technical Theater Program. Prop master is senior Rebecca Dieffenbach.