Hunger, shouting matches, dark humor and a lamb all take center stage at “Curse of the Starving Class,” the first in-person play on South Whidbey in over a year.
The newest production at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts opened Friday, June 11 and runs through Saturday, June 26.
“Curse of the Starving Class” is a dark comedy written in 1977 by the late Sam Shepard. The story closely follows the struggles of the dysfunctional Tate family, who vehemently deny that they are living a hand-to-mouth existence.
Husband Weston, played by Jeff Natter, and wife Ella, played by Marta Mulholland, both fantasize about selling their house and making a better living.
WICA veterans Ethan Berkley and Molly Quade play son Wesley and daughter Emma, who grapple with making themselves understood and understanding each other.
The often-empty refrigerator and the kitchen table become focal points for the characters, who gravitate around these objects.
Musical accompaniment by Troy Chapman in the form of the guitar lends a tense mood to scenes, which are fraught with arguments between the family members.
By its ending scene, “Curse of the Starving Class” is not tied up in a decidedly neat or tidy bow. In fact, it may leave behind more questions than answers.
Quade, the youngest actor on stage, said she had never heard of Sam Shepard before looking at the script for the play.
“I kind of read it and was like, ‘Uh, I’m not sure if I really get it all the way,’” she said with a laugh.
Natter, who is brand-new to the WICA stage, said he found the role of his high-energy character to be challenging.
“This is the most physically and emotionally exhausting role I’ve ever played, easily,” he said.
Deana Duncan, the show’s director, said she has seen actors yell their way through Weston’s role because the original script has his lines in all caps. By having Natter adjust the depth of his voice, she found that his character could still come across as menacing.
“Jeff, from the very beginning at the audition, brought a different type of Weston that could have some different levels,” Duncan said.
The actors have been rehearsing together for about four weeks.
Lars Larson plays Taylor, a sketchy lawyer with a lollipop addiction, and Robert Hall plays Ellis, the owner of the bar where Weston spends his time when he’s not home.
Billy Tierney is Sergeant Malcolm, who informs the Tate family of Emma’s arrest, and Jim Scullin is the villainous Emerson, who arrives within the final moments of the play with a twist.
Banana makes her debut onstage as the lamb in “Curse of the Starving Class.” The fuzzy co-star steals the show at times, bahhh-ing in response to Weston’s diatribes and one time, defecating.
During an interview, the show’s leads reflected on its dark nature.
“This play sometimes plays like a Greek tragedy — the knowledge that each of the characters comes to in the play leads to destruction,” Natter said. “It doesn’t lead to fulfillment or rejuvenation. They come to their knowledge at such great cost.”
“We’re so used to seeing stories that wrap up nicely in the end,” Quade said. “That’s not how anything is in reality. For me, when I think of this play, I think of the story as a moment that we kind of get a glimpse of in this tragic life.”
Duncan said there was a conversation about whether or not WICA should choose something lighter coming out of the pandemic.
Theaters around the country, she explained, have been going very light and funny, or they were going deep.
“And for me, the conversation that we had here, the humanity of this pandemic and everything that we’ve been through, I wanted to really delve into humanity,” she said.
“I don’t know if this was the right choice for right now, but the reason is because I wanted to play and hear about real life and people dealing with that.”
“Curse of the Starving Class” performance times are 7:30 p.m. on June 19, 24, 25, 26. Standard tickets are $35 each.