I want to like Sam Shepard's plays. I really do. But they just don't work for me. It's not that I don't like plays about bleak, dysfunctional families. I loved Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. And it's not that dislike dramas about sibling rivalry. I admired Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog. So why do Shepard's plays rub the wrong way? Well, maybe it's not him. It's me.
Curse of the Starving Class:
My first experience with Sam Shepard was actually one of my first experiences with professional theater. When I was thirteen years old, my grandfather was a season subscriber at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and because he knew I was interested in the theater, he invited me along one evening. We watched Curse of the Starving Class. It was a grueling experience for one of us in particular. Now, sure, you could argue that a lot of socio-economic material flew way over my head at the time. However, I was old enough and in love with storytelling enough to realize that these characters could not earn my trust or my sympathy. And we should have lots of sympathy for these characters: two kids stuck in an impoverished household on the brink of starvation and insanity. There should be pity! But I didn't feel it.
An anonymous writer for Wikipedia claims that "The characters in this piece can be looked upon like stock characters from commedia. They represent something, instead of really being someone." However, symbolism works best when it is ingrained within a story in such a way that the message subtly plants seeds in the mind, rather than a bluntly slapping the audience in the face with a sheep carcass.
It probably didn't help that the production cast adults in the roles of children, demonstrating what New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called a "ferociously anti-naturalistic bent" featured in much of Shepard's work. I can get behind a deconstruction of American values in all its flawed glory, but only if I believe in the characters.
(By the way, as a side note, I thought Curse of the Starving Class was interesting but ultimately disappointing. My grandfather, however, was disgusted by the performance. I'll always remember with great fondness how we stood in the lobby during the intermission of Curse while Noises Off played on the main stage. We could hear the audience laughing and having a marvelous time. My grandpa said with a sigh, "I got tickets to the wrong show.")Buried Child:
Perhaps the best of Shepard's family dramas in that it blends American Gothic with a vicious shade of Harold Pinter, Buried Child is another sordid tale of another highly dysfunctional family living in a rural wasteland. This family has a deep dark secret (that isn't so secretive since the title gives away a great deal). A grandson comes home to visit his family after having been away for over six years. He also brings his girlfriend of two months, Shelley, along for the ride. Vince's family is a collection of creepy stock characters, consisting of traits one might expect from deleted scenes of Deliverance. Shelley is rather unbelievable in that she stays around much longer than any other reasonable person would dare. If Shelley's character had stayed more connected with reality, she may have been our guide through this strange, sad landscape of of incest and infanticide -- but the longer she stays, the more she becomes like Vince's messed up relatives.
At times the style of dialogue lends itself to absurdist theater, but during other scenes it feels like the play is a psychological drama/thriller. Yet because the characters in Buried Child don't behave in a natural way, the play is neither thrilling or psychologically truthful. (It is dramatic, though, I'll give it that!) Vince spends a collective ten minutes in the house, a seemingly normal young man. When he comes back drunk at the end of the play, he has transformed. He devolves into the same pathetic form as all of the other male family members.