Nobody goes hungry in "Curse of the Starving Class," the new Sam Shepard play at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. Wistful references are made to the starving of India and Korea, who presumably are able to lend dignity to their talk about starving by actually starving.
The American class depicted here with savage satire is that of small land-owners. They make a living from the land they own; the curse is that they are conditioned to expect something better.
Shepard, who played a lead in the beautiful film "Days of Heaven," in which the star was the American landscape, won an award for the script of this play before it was ever produced. It's in the tradition of distinguished American playwrights, with both the virtues and faults that have stung such obvious predecessors as Eugene O'Neill, Maxwell Anderson, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and many in between.
In addition, it has a rare virtue of its own, a sense of humor. The description of the classic drunken American father as waking up the next day "with peanuts on his teeth" is alone worth the price of admission, and in addition you get a ruined 4-H project on chickenhood and the arrest of a young girl for riding horseback through a saloon while shooting it to ruins -- on charges of "a violation of equestrian regulations."
The more conventional virtue of this tradition is that the play depicts, with more or less poetic strength, the American condition. A family of four -- the same demographics as in the "family that prays together stays together" -- ekes out a living on an avocado farm in a period that looks like the early '50s. The parents dream separately of selling out for a better life, while the children represent the conservatively persistent belief in the land. The parents' sins, we are promised, will be passed on.
The traditional fault, as glaring as ever, is the impulse to deepen all this with symbolic hijinks. There is a perfectly dreadful morass of an ending to this play, involving some funny stuff with Jesus (somebody murders a lamb, washes himself in its blood, and then can't remember which of them is bleeding) and the American eagle (which is in the business of robbing manhood, as shown by its swooping down on rooftops to eat discarded animal testicles).
But back on the realism plane, in such matters as hoping on credit or the magical powers of being an auto mechanic, this is a wonderful play. It's given a fine production, directed by Douglas C. Wager with photorealism sets and costumes by Karl Eigsti and Marjorie Slaiman. The cast is both gripping and clever: Leslie Cass, who seems to direct all her zany madness at her own bangs, and Stanley Anderson, who does a drunk scene reminiscent of Robert Mitchum sober, as the parents; and Christina Moore and Christopher McHale as the equally vehement next generation.
Warning: This play contains total male nudity, and also a live lamb.