Curse of the Starving Class

[The following review appeared in the Denver Post on Thursday, September 11th.]

After concentrating on new work and regional premieres for its first decade, Curious Theatre Company opens its 11th season with a stunning, no holds barred production of Sam Shepard's gritty 1978 hit, Curse of the Starving Class.

Given the political season, it turns out to be a savvy choice by producing artistic director Chip Walton, who pulls out all the stops while getting to direct one of his favorite playwrights for the first time.

With a big Western sky that moodily evolves with the drama, evoking a phantasmagoria of highlights from the infinite palette of our sunsets and twilights, and some cowboy guitar melodies seemingly illuminated by the same, we find ourselves in the kitchen of a hardscrabble spread somewhere in the dry hills of California.

Dee Covington as Ella and John Jurcheck as Wesley
Dee Covington as Ella
and John Jurcheck as Wesley
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the aftermath of his father Weston's drunken bout the previous evening, son Wesley (John Jurcheck) is picking up the busted fence. The front door is gone, too. Inside, his mom, Ella (Dee Covington), tells him not to bother. Perhaps these folks migrated from Oklahoma, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath; maybe they're related to the Weston's from Pawhuska, OK, in Tracy Lett's August: Osage County.

After some surgical editing for the April, 2008, 30th anniversary production by ACT in San Francisco, Shepard's work sings in this second production of the new script, quickly introducing the dynamics of a wildly contrasting dysfunctional family and their struggle for survival in a vanishing frontier.

Dee Covington as Ella
Dee Covington as Ella
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Covington seizes the moment to express Ella's pent up years of frustration—symbolized by the invariably empty refrigerator that everyone keeps opening to see if, by some miraculous chance, it has been stocked with something to eat—without ever letting go of hope. "We're going to sell the place and go to Europe," she desperately repeats, bringing to mind the Moscow over the horizon in Chekhov's Three Sisters.

Juricheck launches into the first in a series of family soliloquies, showing off Shepard's gift for poetic reverie, as he describes the wonder of life's possibilities. By the end, when we see him in his father's discarded clothes, Juricheck has strikingly illustrated what Shepard describes as taking on our parents' poison.

Joanna Walchuk as Emma
Joanna Walchuk as Emma
Photo: Michael Ensminger
His sister Emma (Joanna Walchuk) has somehow managed, up until this time, to stay on top of her schoolwork and shine at the 4H Club. Her coming of age is a rude awakening, thrown from puberty to sexual bargaining. Walchuk finds the through line in Emma's romantic imagination and spunk, which conveys her, with comic aplomb, through a series of wild adventures as only Shepard could invent them.

Whenever he's around, Weston (Michael McNeill) emotionally terrorizes his family with raging rants aimed to malign; yet McNeill's humorous take on this blubbering fool creates room for a surprising twist.

(Left to right) Josh Robinson as Taylor, Joanna Walchuk as Emma, and John Jurcheck as Wesley
(Left to right) Josh Robinson as Taylor,
Joanna Walchuk as Emma, and
John Jurcheck as Wesley
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Josh Robinson, Tom Borrillo, and David Russell spice up the plot with a smarmy lot of oddballs. Exquisite craft work from Shannon McKinney (lighting), Michael R. Duran (set), Brian Freeland (sound), and Ann Louise Piano (costumes), not to mention a live lamb and a smattering of nudity, complete the sparkling effort.

With only passing allusions to the pressures of development and "progress," Shepard manages find a metaphor of impressive power that delivers a stinging critique of American materialism. As Wesley says, "It's more than losing the house—it's losing a country."

Curious Theatre Company's Curse of the Starving Class runs through October 18th at the Acoma Center. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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