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The Curse of the Starving Class at University of Pittsburgh Stages

It's a strong production of a dated work

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Let's take a moment to salute the unsung heroes of live theater: stage managers. You never see them, but without them there wouldn't be theater. They run the rehearsals, make the coffee, clean the stage; they're the first to arrive, the last to leave, and they make sure everything's where it needs to be (props, costumes, actors) for the magic to happen.

And I can't think of another playwright who makes life as difficult for stage managers as does Sam Shepard. This is a fella in love with props. And not just the quantity; in a Shepard play, everything not nailed down gets thrown to the floor, tossed in the air or crushed into pieces.

So congratulations to Kim Potenga, who stages-manages to perfection Shepard's The Curse of the Starving Class, now at University of Pittsburgh Stages. As is usual with Shepard, Curse is set in some sleazy Western homestead and concerns one of the most dysfunctional families this side of the Macbeths. Weston Tate, the dad, is a loathsome drunk who spends more time in jail than at home. Mother Ella is a delusional nut job with dreams of moving to Europe. (Ricardo Vila-Roger and Lucy Clabby are explosive, but tightly controlled, in the roles and make their toxic co-dependency vivid and scary.) The kids, Emma and Wesley, have a grasp on reality more tenuous than Mom and Pop's. (Amy Wooler and Chris Collier do outstanding work showing the need hidden under the armor.) Trouble arrives when Ella tries to sell the land for her relocation while Weston's peddling it to pay off loan sharks.

Ricardo Vila-Roger, Lucy Clabby and Chris Collier in University of Pittsburgh Stage
  • Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Stages
  • From left: Ricardo Vila-Roger, Lucy Clabby and Chris Collier in University of Pittsburgh Stages' The Curse of the Starving Class

It's been Potenga's job to oversee the Tate detritus: a working sink, stove and refrigerator, a crate of artichokes, bags of groceries, a busted-in front door, wheelbarrow, mounds of laundry, a 4-H science project and a live baby lamb.

At least the lamb's alive. Shepard has this thing for dead animals; several years ago, Pitt produced his A Lie of the Mind, at whose conclusion a character threw onto the stage a real dead deer. And I once saw a production of his one-act Action where the cast gutted and filleted a fish onstage ... in a small theater ... under all those hot lights. (In Shepard's Pulitzer-winner Buried Child, they drag on stage a dead baby — which I'm sure was not real.)

Once the hottest thing in theater, Shepard's slid from fashion. Curse, which premiered in 1978, seems fairly dated, its laborious symbolism a bit tired.

Along with the strong performances, what enlivens the entire Pitt Stages enterprise is the beautiful direction by Cynthia Croot. Her attention to pace and detail is just as great as her ability to carry us through the arc of the play's storytelling. She's a director of obvious artistry and technique, and I can't wait until she gets a script worthy of her talents. (And I hope Potenga is along for the ride.)

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