There's not a lot you can do with the Spotlighters' tiny, arena stage. Four pillars and a square floor are pretty much all there is to it. But as soon as you see set designer David Raphel's moldy linoleum floor, the peeling wallpaper on the pillars and especially the grimy refrigerator wrapped around one of those pillars, you know you're in that corner of run-down rural America that playwright Sam Shepard has made his own.
The setting for Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class" is a farm house, presumably not unlike the one where the playwright grew up. The house's condition is symptomatic of the condition of its occupants, the Tates -- an alcoholic, debt-ridden father, a slovenly mother and their two children, whose most fervent wish is for a stable home and most fervent fear is that they'll grow up to be like their parents.
In this sorry dwelling, the refrigerator serves as a kind of altar to which the family members turn as supplicants, more often than not finding it as barren as their hopes. Shepard's script &r; repeatedly points out that the Tates aren't part of the starving class, but there are all kinds of starvation. Though the refrigerator is eventually stocked with food, by then the doomed VTC family cycle has come around as relentlessly as a fulfilled prophecy in a Greek tragedy.
Shepard's characters may seem like dirtballs, but they serve a larger purpose, representing nothing less than the dissolution of the American dream. This means they have to be credible on both a mythic level and a minute, dirt-under-the-fingernails level.
Director Barry Feinstein has assembled some impressive Shepard specimens, beginning with Tony Reda as the Tates' grown son, Wesley, who is at once slack-jawed and bristling with nervous energy. Reda sets the play's gritty tone with the first of its many monologues, his voice building speed and volume as he launches into a riff about his father coming home drunk the night before. (Todd Sestero's overstated lighting, however, detracts instead of adds to his intensity.)
Though Wesley's angry, inebriated father broke down the door to get in, he -- like most of this family -- aches to get away. He and his wife have been independently scheming to sell the house, and their young, teen-age daughter, Emma, has fantasies of her own about running off to Mexico.
As the father, frequently drunk or passed out, Mark Squirek depicts a man who's never gotten his life on track and gave up trying long ago. Though his children, especially Wesley, are afraid of him, Squirek portrays him as a loser who causes more trouble by default than intent.
North Carroll High School student Bonnie Filipczak is also striking as teen-aged Emma, possibly the only family member truly capable of breaking away. M.L. Grout broadly establishes the character of the blowzy mother -- talking with her mouth full, plucking her eyebrows over the kitchen table -- but her dialogue initially sounds premeditated. Her final exchange, however, ends the play on a strong, fatalistic note.
The first of Shepard's plays about family, "Curse of the Starving Class" was written two years before his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child," a play whose seeds are evident here, not only in terms of the emphasis on family, but also the themes of loss, transformation and the inevitability of heredity.
Director Feinstein has taken a number of chances with this play, which isn't a stroll in the park to begin with. He includes nudity and has a live lamb on stage (both are scene-stealers, but effective nonetheless). Most important, as he did with "Grapes of Wrath" a few years back, he demonstrates a feel for the material that transcends the tight confines of Spotlighters, a small theater with a surprising knack for coming through with big shows that would seem to exceed its grasp.
'Curse of the Starving Class'
Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 1
Call: (410) 752-1225
Pub Date: 11/06/96