“Curse of the Starving Class” blesses WICA stage

— Created June 9, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

At long last, live theater is back on Whidbey Island!

“Curse of the Starving Class,” written by Sam Shepard, opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley and runs through June 26. It is the first live stage production to open since the beginning of the pandemic and cast and crew are thrilled to tread the boards once again.

“Oh wow, it feels amazing to be back in the rehearsal hall,” said Deana Duncan, the play’s director and WICA’s artistic director. “We’ve missed this so much. I enter the space now with awe and gratitude for what it can and will hold.”

“Curse of the Starving Class,” though full of wit and humor, is a deep dive into playwright Shepard’s own difficult childhood and complicated family relationships. Originally slated to be part of an Americana Festival WICA was planning for 2020, it was decided the play still fit, particularly after a difficult year.

“[It was originally] selected because it embodies the Great American West and the dreamers and poets of the cowboy era,” Duncan said. ” We lost all our in-person programming over the pandemic. A few pieces remained relevant and worthy of production, and ‘Curse’ was one of those.

“At its core, the play is a survival story,” she continued. “Shepard writes from a place of isolation and ‘aloneness;’ an aloneness and isolation we now understand more than ever. The social and cultural issues are emotionally and intellectually complex and the play’s language is deeply human and surprisingly funny. I think theatre’s purpose is to explore the mystery of human existence. Shepard’s works do just that through his creation of powerful, poetic realities.”

The play is the beginning of a series based on Shepard’s difficult relationship with his father, explained Duncan.

“This playis set in Shepard’s childhood home, a run-down avocado farm right off Route 66 in Duarte, Calif.,” she said. “The family dynamics are rich and complicated; they love each other fiercely even while they fight through their struggles. There are deep metaphors of the father shedding his skin, the son picking it up and becoming his father, a feisty daughter running headfirst into her future and a mom dreaming of escape while trying to hold it all together.”

The complex relationships of which Shepard wrote are part of what drew actors to this production.

“I was very excited to become part of the cast because of the emotional depth of the work and the timeliness of the issues of broken dreams and resiliency,” said Jeff Natter, who plays the family patriarch, Weston Tate. “The characters are so deep and complex. Every one of them is a great challenge for an actor to undertake.”

“I think this play is about a family struggling with life; struggling in relationships with each other and with themselves,” said Marta Mulholland, who is playing the role of Ella Tate.

“Each member of the Tate family is longing for something. There is a need and desire to connect, but they’re so far from intimacy now they no longer know how to ask for or offer support to each other, even though there are still attempts. Lost dreams, lost intimacy, yet they are each still resilient in their own way and I think this is a key theme. How we keep going in the face of adversity, when we feel alone, when life doesn’t turn out to be what we thought it would.”

“I’m hoping audiences will recognize and appreciate the hurdles the Tate family faces in trying to live their lives in the midst of deep challenges,” Natter said. “The issues are timeless: coping with loss, alienation; trying to hold a family together that’s splintering at the seams. There’s also a surprising amount of humor in the play.”

Duncan said the last year has left its mark on everyone, which meant she wanted to find a new way to approach how she brings this story to the stage.

“[The most difficult aspect of this production has been] finding how to tell the story now, at this time,” she said. “We are changed, the world is different, and I don’t want to direct the play in the way I might have a few years ago. I now hear Shepard’s love of language and his poetry. I’m working hard to bring this production from a place of beauty and hope and where the ending isn’t a resolution, but rather a new beginning.”

A truly unique aspect of this production is the addition of a live, improvised score by local musician Troy Chapman.

“Troy is sharing his ‘Americana’ music for the first time and it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Duncan said.

Even though the production will take place live, in front of a studio audience, WICA Executive Director Verna Everitt said audiences will notice a few changes.

“Audiences will continue to see the care we’ve taken to make them feel confident about their return,” she said. “The staff has worked tirelessly since March 2020 to make changes not only designed to keep our community healthy, but also to create an environment of comfort and intimacy.

“Patrons that haven’t visited in recent months will also notice the great strides we’ve made in hospitality and the unique opportunities they’ll have to gather and reconnect with friends,” Everitt continued. “Two examples are the improvements we’ve made to our interior bar and the recent launch of ‘Happy Hour Under the Tent.’ The happy hour happens every Friday and Saturday and offerings include an assortment of soft drinks, local wines and brews, signature cocktails, snacks, and fantastic local talent on our covered patio.”

Evening performances of “Curse of the Starving Class” begin at 7:30 p.m. There is one matinee performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 13. Tickets for evening performances are $45 for a premium seat (includes a complimentary beverage) or $35 for a standard seat. Tickets for the matinee performance are $35 for a premium seat, $25 for a standard seat. Tickets can be purchased online at wicaonline.org.

“We are slowly coming out of the most challenging year in the center’s history. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our community for its steadfast support,” noted Everitt. “Financial contributions by individuals and businesses have also allowed us to honor our commitment to accessibility and affordability. We’re offering two, ‘Pay What You Will’ performances of ‘Curse of the Starving Class’ (June 10 and 17) and hope our neighbors that have crossed ‘art and entertainment’ off this year’s budget will join us. When current occupancy restrictions are lifted, we’ll be able to increase our seating capacity and to offer even more opportunities to engage in the arts.”

For now, all those interested are encouraged to check out one of the region’s first in-person theatrical productions since March 2020, and WICA’s 101st show.

“I forgot how much I love this process and being part of a creative group delving into a huge story and bringing it to life,” Duncan said. “Theater is an amazing art form that really only lives on in memory and it’s so precious to walk in these characters’ footsteps. I can’t wait to share this play with an audience.”

“I’m loving discovering more and more about the play and my character with each rehearsal, diving into the depths of this play by bringing it to life,” said Mulholland. “Theater helps me make sense of life.”

“Sam Shepard is one of our greatest American playwrights,” Natter said. “I think his work isn’t done nearly enough, mostly because of the emotional challenges it places on the actors. I’m so glad WICA has risen to the challenge in such a strong way. I think audiences are eager to come back to live theater, to hear great stories being told, and to share the commonality that brings us all together.”