There is a kind of unity in Sam Shepard’s career—as dramatist and actor—that seems the result more of art than of chance. A new staging of his 1977 play Curse of the Starving Class gives us a rare opportunity to look back. Bradley Whitford, who plays the son Wesley, even looks like a younger Sam Shepard. With Wesley’s sensitivity and proclivity to moral outrage, it is easy to imagine him growing up to become another Shepard. Wesley’s more adventurous tendencies, such as his flights of fancy in the model airplanes banked across his ceiling, also provide an early glimpse into the Sam Shepard who played Chuck Yeager so convincingly in The Right Stuff.
The passion and emotional depth of the father Weston wells up again in Shepard’s more recent drama Fool for Love. In this dramatic piece of theater, the motley kitchen of Curse becomes a tawdry motel room at the edge of a desert. The two lovers grapple with each other and the power of their passion just as the family in Curse must defy and yet define the bloody knot of family ties.
Shepard’s most obsessive thematic concerns include the corrosive effects of plutocratic “progress” on the American family. In Curse a land developer is slowly but inevitably acquiring the small farms that surround the family’s land. Although the son makes a naive attempt to rally the family to action, his efforts are ridiculed by his alcoholic father, avaricious mother, and self-centered adolescent sister. His hunger and desperation drive him to slaughter the lamb that we finally understand was marked for sacrifice from the very beginning.
Shepard says a lot about families in this play, especially about the violent love that lies at the heart of family conflict. Through dramatic action such as Curse and in the parts he has chosen to play in movies like Country, Shepard seems to be telling us that the American family remains a kind of impossible necessity.
Shepard expresses the paradox in beautifully crafted poetic language. While the son’s opening soliloquy remains structurally weak in the context of the play, the words bring close to home the drunken father in his reckless car, with lines such as “headlights goin’ back to black.” Sam Shepard’s poetic potential has been fulfilled in later works such as Fool for Love, and it was an exciting experience to see that talent beginning to blossom.
New York provided another comment on “progress” in a concurrent exhibition of photographs and etchings at The Donnell Center of the New York Public Library. These depictions of ornamental manhole covers are the work of an indomitable photographer, Hertha Bauer. Featured in The Guinness Book of Records for her 1,200 photographs of such covers, Bauer celebrates the art of the idiosyncratic working class.
She hopes to collect at least one example of every design on New York’s manhole covers before the city, busy as ever, replaces them with “more practical” identical covers. Through Bauer’s photographs, generations of artisans and artists bring their message of symmetry, poignancy, and humor to anyone who bothers to glance down at the world of beauty beneath our feet.
[Curse of the Starving Class; Written by Sam Shepard; Directed by Robin Lynn Smith; Presented by Patricia Daily and Arthur Master Productions, Inc.; The Promenade Theatre; New York]