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Shepard's 'Curse' brutal and rocky

Published September 11, 2008 at 7 p.m.

None of the doors in Curse of the Starving Class leads anywhere good.

The front door has been smashed to splinters by drunken, hurtling father Weston. The window, in Michael R. Duran's superbly spare set, offers a view of nothing. And the filthy, decrepit refrigerator is perennially empty. Even when they eat, this family in the wastelands of Southern California is starving and has no idea what will satiate.

Curious Theatre Company presents Sam Shepard's recent revision of his 1978 tragicomedy. It's frequently considered part of a family trilogy along with True West and Buried Child but makes those works look like an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Life is brutal and ugly, and so is the family living a hardscrabble existence as the American West is turned into clone exurbs around them. Ella is a far cry from a nurturing presence, alternating between ignoring her teenage children and berating them. Dee Covington plays her at full volume, moving gradually to a quieter stance as she seeks escape through a shady speculator (straight man Josh Robinson) offering to buy the property. She sees romance in him as well, and when she descends the staircase for a lunch meeting in costume designer Ann Louise Piano's proper dress and gloves, she resembles no one so much as the faded belle Amanda Wingfield. The slap, of course, is that Ella has never had a day of glory.

Her husband, Weston, is barely present in family life. In Michael McNeill's performance, he's a raucous, clumsy presence debilitated by alcohol but never very threatening. McNeill could use a bit more menace, but his later attempt at reform is touching.

Their children garner the only sympathy, as children often do. John Jurcheck's Wesley is so thin his overalls are suspended as if from a hanger, and this gaunt lost-boy nature pervades the character, on the cusp of being a man with no idea how to get there. He wisely delivers Shepard's poetic reveries with an earnest simplicity, leaving the words to stand on their own.

Joanna Walchuck best captures the play's comic scenes, hilarious as a screaming girl who just got her period and will not be silenced, especially when her mother steals a chicken intended for the 4-H fair. She, perhaps, sees most clearly her family's situation, making her both the most entertaining and the most poignant character.

The play is a rocky road, filled with metaphor, a live sheep and simulated onstage urination. It's not quite naturalistic, not quite absurdist, and director Chip Walton wisely errs on the side of naturalism. But as a result, much of the comedy is lost to horror. Early scenes are overwhelming in their emotional high pitch, and two late-play gangsters appear as caricatures next to the finely drawn family.

Most of Shepard's themes are here, but one feels particularly prescient, as a grown man wonders how he has lost everything and why the prosperity America seemed to promise hasn't materialized. He believed in the dream of credit and has dug a hole bigger than he can see. "If it's all an idea," he says, "nothing's really there, why not take advantage?"

There's a highway just outside his window, but the only place he can hope it will take him is Mexico.

Lisa Bornstein is the theater critic. bornsteinl@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5101

Curse of the Starving Class

* Grade: B+

* When and where: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St.

* Cost: $9 to $34

* Information: 303-623-0524

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