Judith Ivey give a powerful performance at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. —T. Charles EricksonJudith Ivey give a powerful performance at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. —T. Charles EricksonJudith Ivey steps into Sam Shepard’s play, “Curse of the Starving Class,” with such honest emotion that the audience cheers for, jeers, or fears for her, depending on the scene. So powerful is her performance in this production that she manipulates the audience response with every gesture and snide remark. Her character, Ella, is on to the curses within her family. Although this family is hungry for “something,” each member claims that it is not starving.

First Ella talks about the curse of menstruation which her daughter is just experiencing. Then there’s the course of alcoholism, and especially there is the economic curse, which this family cannot get beyond. As the matriarch in the family, she is quick to point out the many curses this family has to overcome. She describes these curses as inherited. She sees the curse every day of her life. 

“I can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming…And it goes back. Deep….to tiny little cells and genes. To atoms. To tiny little swimming things making up their minds without us. Plotting in the womb.”

Ivey is simply wonderful in this role. She has left her mark on this production and it is an indelible performance of the highest rank. She is also in good company with this talented cast. Peter Albrink undergoes a transformation as Ella’s son, Wesley. That he is able to pull it off right before your eyes is a testament to his talent.  Kevin Tighe plays Weston, the father who is emotionally disturbed by his family’s lack of cohesiveness. Tighe makes it obvious that this family is not connecting. It’s each one for him/herself. Tighe plays the role teetering on the line drawn between survival and insanity. His performance is so heart-wrenching that you want to cry, even while you laugh at  his crazy responses. Elvy Yost plays the daughter in the family. As Emma she is the classic tomboy. Her performance is as convincing as the others. 

John Procaccino plays Taylor, a swindler who calls himself a lawyer and land speculator is the perfect double-dealing villain dressed up in a suit. Playing a slug of a character named Emerson/Ellis is Clark Middleton who comes on strong as a thoroughly dislikable low life. Malcolm/Slater is played by Ben Becher. 

Gordon Edelstein, the artistic director of Long Wharf directs this production with the precision of a sheep herder. He leads the cast to Shepard’s fertile pasture and lets them graze upon the land until they are sated. The metaphor comes to mind because of the precious lamb that is also part of this cast and charms the audience through and through. 

The language and material is hard to hear and bear, but taken straight from a hard-knocks reality. Some of the scenes are so base that you have to look away, especially the scene when the brother urinates on his sister’s project. For sure, this is a play about the impossibility and frustrating myth of achieving the ever elusive American dream. There’s something terribly ugly underlining this play, but it is perfectly presented at Long Wharf and likely to haunt audiences for years to come. 

Micahel Yeargan’s set is minimal but on a large scale, which suggests the idea of a small interior against a large exterior capturing the sense of a family lost in a big territory — Shepard’s America. Clint Ramos designed the costumes, all of which are character-definitive and James F. Ingalls’ lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design accent the play in all the right places. 

The production runs through March 10 on the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre at Long Wharf, 222Sargent Drive, New Haven. Box office:  203-787-4282. Please note that there is male nudity in this provocative production. 

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT.  She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]