Admired by the avant-garde, playwright Sam Shepard gets his first major area production at Arena's Kreeger Theater, where "Curse of the Starving Class" last night opened a run to extend through Feb. 25.

Many will welcome this opportunity to see what appears to be a faithful Shepard production. Others will loathe it.

Shepard's strength is in his visual and verbal images, which burst, shock, explode and occasionally touch. His intent seems to be to arrest us solely by the force of an image.

"Operation Sidewinder," which received a striking production in Lincoln Center, and "The Tooth of Crime" were vivid if chaotic and overblown expressions of his highly personal approach to a mixture of stark realities and symbolic baloons.

Set on a small avocado farm in Southern California, "Curse of the Starving Class" presents a father, mother, teen-aged daughter and somewhat older son. The father is a lush -- surly, rough and cruel. The mother, Ella, is a whiner who has loathed the ranch and secretly conceives a means of getting away by selling it to a shady lawyer. Neither son Wesley nor daughter Emma can imagine living anywhere else, and all are stunned to learn that, also without telling his spouse, father Weston has the same idea. He, too, wants to start a new life.

Shepard reveals the inner longings and ideals of each character by giving all revealing soliloquies. But outwardly, all are confused, hate-filled, ignorant and unbelievable.

A certain mark of the avant-garde is its assurance that believability is trivial, unimportant, irrelevant and unworthy of art. The creed is that looseness is all, that style is everything and that only earthbound bums will insist on asking why.

Shepard protects himself architecturally by presenting his statement in three balanced acts. There is the hope of regeneration when, at the start of the third act, father Weston appears to have reformed. He has remade the door he broke down in his drunken frenzy, he nurtures his son's lamb and tells it his own most moving, personal image, how an eagle hammered away at him from the sky while he was castrating young lambs.

Through Weston, Shepard is relating his thoughts on what happened after the war to a B-49 pilot who had bombed civilians.Weston's ideal of settling down to grow avocados, of a wifely partner and of loving children vanishes in the hard world around them. By implication, this involves the entire American mentality and, through extension, society's materialistic values. Land sold for profit will turn out to be entailed by mortgages and debts.

It may be said that Shepard is writing about only one American family, but since it is not a credible one and there are so many wide loopholes of events, the audience is forced into the conclusion that more than one family is intended, that all of us are guilty, that all of us are filthy and doomed. it is this conclusion, this flat, all-out declaration that all, all, is vanity which dooms this and other Shepard dramas to a cult audience.

During the play I thought more than once of "Tobacco Road." For Jeeter Lester and his family it was turnips. For Weston and his, it's avocados, though I was amused that none of the family seemed aware of what I once learned on a California ranch. It takes 18 months for an avocado to mature, they're hell to pick and why are these people all so blithe about the ease of growing avocados?

But Weston nas some of the grand acting opportunities of Jeeter, and Stanley Anderson is magnificant in the demanding part, an actor of strong emotion and physical power. Christina Moore's Emma is finely indicative of the girl's frustrations, and I admired the command of Christopher McHall, whose Wesley is required to urinate well and punctually and to run around naked. Without the impulse to shock, the avant-grade assumes it is falling behind.