Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Under Lemon Custard Skies -- and The Creation of Self

Groves in Duarte -- Sometime in the Past


Duarte is a city in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. It was once quite rural, mostly small holdings of orange and lemon groves and avocado orchards at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains by the San Gabriel River.

Of course, before it was groves, it was a California Spanish rancho, Rancho Azusa de Duarte as it was called, only 7,000 acres of scrub and manzanita, where cattle and sheep were raised. Before that it was Indian land, where the tribe that would be called "Gabrieleno" lived well by the river that courses out of the mountains and off the abundance of the oaks and the other plants and animals of the region.

And now? Well, now it's a standard model San Gabriel Valley suburb of Los Angeles, chock a block with little stucco houses, mostly built in the 1950's before the freeway went through (the 210 wasn't built through Duarte until the 1970's). Even as a suburban enclave, Duarte was somewhat apart.

Duarte was the region where playwright/actor/musician Sam Shepard grew up in the 1950's and into the early 1960's and where (in a sense) he sets his "family plays" that won so many awards in the 1970's and '80's when they were seen as a revelation of the darker side of the California Dream as well as for what could be done on stage when the strictures of realism were violated.

I say that "in a sense" Shepard sets his family plays in or near Duarte, because you don't really know where his imploding families are, except that they are somewhere in California, Southern California, not far from the desert, but not actually in it. A transitioning rural/suburban area, where coyotes were sometimes still heard, where a future in agriculture was still imagined to be possible, where living could be harsh, and yet where the Dream of what might be possible was ever-present.

"Curse of the Starving Class" is perhaps Shepard's most telling and evocative family play, and it is possibly his most autobiographical. It is by far his most difficult family play to mount and pull off effectively. Not because it is so physically difficult -- though it isn't easy, given the live lamb and the pissing on stage -- but because it is psychologically and emotionally so nuanced and ultimately so wrenching.

What do you do and how do you play it without tearing yourself apart as the characters spiral into despair and destruction?

Until last weekend, I'd never seen this play in production, though I've read the play many times and wanted to produce it myself. I have seen video clips of productions that failed to satisfy my desire to witness the underlying truth that Shepard is getting at. The pieces I saw tended to be so highly charged and filled with yelling and storming around, it was impossible to know or to care in the least about these people, the Tates, whose lives and world were falling apart all around them -- as "civilization" moved in. Given the way I was seeing the play done, their extinction would be a mercy killing. But that isn't what I saw in the script. Shepard may not have liked these characters very much, but he clearly empathized with their humanity and suffering. The way I saw the play being done over and over again, you couldn't share that empathy. They were just monsters. To be done with. Please.

It's fairly obvious that the family in "Curse of the Starving Class" represent Shepard's own household -- including Sam himself -- during the extraordinarily stressful period when the San Gabriel Valley was undergoing a forced transition from ranch and orchard land to endless miles of suburban sprawl. I witnessed this transformation with my own eyes, since I lived in several communities in the San Gabriel Valley from 1953 to 1959, the same time Shepard was living there, and I've never forgotten it, never really gotten over it.

That place is forever a part of my being. In Shepard's family plays California, Southern California, that part of Southern California is one of the principal characters, perhaps THE principal character, and part of the reason these plays -- and this one in particular -- resonate so strongly with me is that Shepard is able to capture the spirit and essence of that place and its character like no other writer I have ever encountered. Others can capture the essence of Los Angeles or Hollywood fairly well, but not the fringes, not places like Duarte as Shepard conceives it. For many who write about Southern California, those places don't even exist.

"Curse of the Starving Class" cast picture.  Catherine Hughes, Caroline Graham, Alex Wasson, John Wylie -- and Lambo the lamb

The production we saw at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque over the weekend was as close to perfect as I can imagine the play being done. It was brilliant.

The production was as spare and lean as possible, presented in a tiny black box with seating on two sides of a square performance area in the corner of a large room -- essentially identical to our own theater space in California -- on a set that was barely a set at all, an unfinished "kitchen" featuring a large and usually empty refrigerator, sometimes a lamb in a cage, a reinforced kitchen table and some chairs, a kitchen sink, and a two burner hotplate that served as a stove on which to cook the bacon, the eggs, and the artichokes which became the food for the putative "starving class."

The Tates are not literally starving, although they pretend they are, but they are members of the "starving class," a class of people -- then particularly in California but now found practically everywhere -- who see what little they have being taken from them.

For the Tates, the land is being taken, the land being the only thing that is holding them together, as "the family" seems to have disintegrated prior to the start of the play. At rise, Wesley is removing the debris of the front door broken down by Weston, Wesley's father, in a drunken stupor and rage the previous night. Wesley has become the family "adult" -- even though he's perhaps no more than fifteen or eighteen years old -- because his father is such a wastrel, his mother so flighty. Of course why they are the way they are becomes clearer during the course of the play. It is not because they are intrinsically "bad" people -- far from it. It is because they are trying and failing to do their best under impossible odds and circumstances.

Throughout the play, Shepard uses metaphors and symbols to show how impossible -- and Fated -- their situation is. Predators and prey figure prominently, emasculation is a constant theme (Weston folding the laundry is one of the most sympathetic moments of the play, yet one can't help being disturbed by his apparent transformation); the innocent lamb onstage, beset by maggots, is of course the strongest metaphor for what is happening to the Tates, and the sacrifice of the lamb -- which is done so subtlely in this production it's possible to miss it -- is the essence of the sealing of their cruel fate.

The desire to hold on to the land and what the land represents -- the Dream that brought the Tates to California in the first place -- leads inevitably to the ultimate tragedy of the play, and yet in Shepard's telling and this production, as awful as that tragedy is, it's not without its humor or its human aspect. While there are many absurdist elements in the script -- and they can be very difficult to do effectively -- the characters are fully-formed and flawed humans attempting to survive as best they can and to do so with as much dignity as they can muster. Bit by bit, their dignity is stripped from them until there is almost nothing left. In earlier versions of the play, Shepard left them literally nothing.

The cast was under the sure direction of Lauren Dusek Albonico who I don't doubt was responsible both for the acting ensemble that we saw on stage, and for resisting the urge to make mock of the family's tragedy by emphasizing the absurdist elements of the script rather than the human ones. The story is one that many New Mexicans can relate to, especially given the real estate boom and bust parts of the state are still suffering from.

Albonico chose not to emphasize the time period of the play -- 1950s/early 60s -- which helps to give it a timelessness that can resonate with a new generation. The themes are timeless after all, the family in crisis story going back to the origins of dramatic art. Because I lived in the San Gabriel Valley at the time Shepard did (though I'm a bit younger and lived further east) and I personally witnessed the transformation of the region from rural to suburban, and I was aware of and witnessed some of the family tragedies that resulted, I see the play as something of an allegory of my own youth.

No, I never went through what the Tates do, but I knew people who did...

Mt. Baldy from Duarte not so long ago. The White Mountain is ever-present...

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