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Shepard’s ‘Curse of the Starving Class’
explores family dysfunction, desperation

Muhlenberg College theatre production marks
Larry Singer’s return to stage after 20 years

Allentown, Pa. (Nov. 17, 2011) — Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard delves into the darkest corners of the American family in his 1978 play “Curse of the Starving Class,” opening Nov. 30 at Muhlenberg College.

Part of Shepard’s series of “family tragedy” plays, “Curse” continues the playwright’s exploration of the death of the American family—embodied by the Tate family, whose personal and financial struggles have pushed them to desperation. The New York Times called the play “Shepard’s most comic and most excoriating study of the indomesticity of the American household.”

“Curse of the Starving Class” plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 4 in Muhlenberg’s 100-seat Studio Theatre.

The production marks Muhlenberg faculty member Larry Singer’s return to the stage after 20 years. Singer teaches acting as a visiting assistant professor in the Theatre and Dance Department. He made his Broadway debut in 1980 and worked as an actor for the next decade, but since 1988 has worked primarily as a teacher and director.

A poll of Back Stage magazine readers named Singer the best scene study teacher and acting coach in New York City, in the magazine’s 2011 Back Stage Choice Awards. Singer says that “Curse of the Starving Class” has provided a challenging return to the stage.

“Shepard writes completely with his heart, trying to bear and expunge his own demons,” Singer says. “You just sense that as an artist, he’s not holding back, and he’s unequivocal in his determination to do that, and that inspires me as an actor to follow suit.”

Director Francine Roussel, also a faculty member in the Theatre and Dance Department, says the play has particular resonance now, in the wake of recent financial scandals and what she calls America’s growing distrust of the elite.

“The greed of American culture is a dominant theme in the play—how that greed overwhelms the characters’ sense of family,” Roussel says. “The play is talking about the dysfunctional family, but it also has the bigger context that is the crisis of capitalism, and the risk of the excesses that are beyond the individual crisis of this family.”

“Curse of the Starving Class” tells the story of the Tate family, barely subsisting on a scrap of a California avocado farm. The son, Wesley, stands on the precarious edge of manhood, his prospects dim, while his sister Emma immerses herself in 4-H projects and horseback fantasies. Their father Weston, played by Singer, has driven the family deep into debt, but he’s got a scheme to sell the place and start fresh. He has no idea that his wife Ella is cooking up a scheme of her own.

Roussel says the Tates are doomed from the start—by Weston’s alcoholism, by greed, and by their inability to come together as a family.

“The parents are behaving more like children, and the children are being forced to grow up very fast and to try to be responsible,” she says. “But of course they haven’t been given the tools to do that, to grow up. The family members cling to each other and claw at each other at the same time; they feel like they need each other to survive, but like they’re trapped.

“There’s a beautiful image at the end of the play,” Roussel says, “of an eagle who is flying in midair with a cat hanging by its claws from the eagle’s chest. They are destroying each other. And even though they’re trying to survive, both of them will eventually fall to their death.”

Singer says that, besides the playwright’s brutal honesty and excoriating, dark sense of humor, what most distinguishes Shepard’s writing is its sense of rhythm.

“The rhythms are challenging at first,” he says, “but after a while you feel like you’re galloping along with a horse. It’s a great feeling. Sometimes you fall off, and it hurts, but otherwise galloping is a great rhythm.”

The play presents some unique production challenges—chief among them, that it calls for a live lamb to join the cast.

“We have to make sure it’s not too big, make sure it’s used to being handled by humans and not just wild in the fields,” Roussel says. “That remains our number one concern.”

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department is the top-rated college performance program in the country, according to the Princeton Review’s 2012 survey report. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa, offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.

 “Curse of the Starving Class” will be performed Nov. 30 – Dec. 4: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. For mature audiences.

Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

To arrange an interview or photo opportunity with Francine Roussel, Larry Singer or members of the cast, please contact Scott Snyder, at 484-664-3693 or scottsnyder@muhlenberg.edu.