Family Feud

Sam Shepard, America's playwright and poet laureate of the modern West, is in his best form in Curse of the Starving Class, a searingly funny-sad take on family dysfunction. Curse dates from the late '70s, but isn't often revived — it's a pleasure to see it mounted at the Wilma in a generally strong production.

On its surface, Curse is structured like a farce. Ella and Weston Tate are a feuding middle-aged married couple living on an isolated patch of California farmland, each quietly scheming to sell the property out from under the other. The darker secondary plot involves their troubled children, Emma and Wesley, who (as the names suggest) seem destined to follow their parents' rocky paths — as Emma puts it so tellingly, the family legacy is nitroglycerine in the blood.

Curse may be Shepard's most straightforward play, but it's full of his distinctive voice. Language and visual images are fragmented, capturing a haunting, iconic landscape of Americana: broken-down cars, empty refrigerators, lost opportunities.

This is part of the play's greatness, but it's very difficult to get it just right. Director Richard Hamburger does especially well in capturing Shepard's complex tonal mix. In the fine cast, Bruce McKenzie (Weston) shines especially, as do five quirky local actors — David Blatt, Keith Conallen, Sam Henderson, Peter Schmitz and Ed Swidey — whose idiosyncrasies are memorably used in small roles. Nate Miller (Wesley) and Keira Keeley (Emma) act well, but both look far too mature to play impressionable teenagers, which softens some of the play's edges. The play's other star is Matt Saunders' set, which is a mixed bag — it's visually stunning, but the vast open spaces dilute the sense of containment and high-octane energy.