Feature story: Live theater meets the real world

California real estate is a hot topic at Stanford Summer Theater

Live theater has the ability to combine the great themes of life with real-world scenarios. Stanford Summer Theater's production of "Curse of the Starving Class" may be very authentic for some in the audience.

The play focuses on the issues of real-estate speculation, financial loss and the family drama that ensues: topics that many Californians know all too well.

"It's the question of what is real estate," said Rush Rehm, the play's director and co-founder of the Stanford Summer Theater program. "How real is it? In some sense real estate is really dream estate. The dream of all you're going to be able to do with it, and that it is always going to go up in value."

Sam Shepard, a California native, wrote the piece in 1976, but its critical view of real estate and the corporate world strike a modern chord. "Curse of the Starving Class," which runs July 19 through Aug. 12, follows a dysfunctional family as they try to sell their home. The characters vie against each other to cash in on the property and escape their way of life.

"Aspects of this play seem to be written not today, but tomorrow," Rehm said. "There is a little bit of the Occupy movement in the play, recognition that the people at the bottom are always the ones who get gobbled up."

While comedy appears throughout the play, Rehm stressed that ultimately the piece is not a comedy but a tragedy. He praised Shepard's ability to weave so many themes and characters into a soundly structured script.

Shepard's work has seen a revival in the Bay Area over the last year; many of his plays have been brought to life this season. "Curse of the Starving Class," however, is less commonly performed.

Rehm said he believes the piece to be Shepard's masterpiece. He points to its unusual combination of loveable characters, scurrilous humor and relevance to the contemporary economic and social problems in the United States.

"I think 10 years ago it would have been a little hard for people, but now people get it," Rehm said.

The director also described the play as an actor's dream, allowing performers to approach the characters from many angles.

Stanford Summer Theater veteran Courtney Walsh plays the mother, Ella, whom she described as a woman who is seldom right but never in doubt.

"Everything in the culture tells her that she should be able to get out of this rut and decay that she lives in," Walsh said. "Every time she tries to get a toe-hold out, it's as if the world is conspiring against her."

Walsh said that behind the onstage action of the play there is a great real-estate game going on in the subtext. The family, she said, tries to break into that game, but is not savvy enough and ends up being played by the large, unfeeling corporate entities.

Walsh, an attorney, is in her fourth season with Stanford Summer Theater. She said the professionalism and keen audience keep her coming back to the company, which she calls a secret treasure of the Bay Area.

"We have this audience that is unbelievable," Walsh said. "Normally it's nice if you can get people to come, and if you can get them to come and they have read the play that's good. But these people have not only read the play, they have studied the play."

Audiences will have many chances to study the work of Sam Shepard this year, as Stanford Summer Theater is also featuring a film series and a symposium.

The film series will run July 9 through Aug. 6, with free screenings every Monday at 7 p.m. and discussions with Stanford faculty members following. Rehm designed the series to examine Shepard's work as an actor and a screenwriter.

Shepard has appeared in more than 47 movies and written screenplays for another seven. He earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff."

Stanford Summer Theater will also host an all-day symposium called "Shepard and the Eclectic American West," scheduled to take place the day of the July 28 performance of "Curse of the Starving Class." The event will include selections from a number of Shepard plays and speeches from Stanford faculty members. There will also be a discussion led by faculty members and Stanford Summer Theater actors.

Meanwhile, Rehm, a Stanford drama and classics professor, has also been teaching a continuing-studies course since June called "Shepard and American Realism."

"I'm trying to draw out, 'What is realism?'" Rehm said. "When we say something is real we are accepting the world as it is supposed to be. Realism is a battle between what is on the surface and what is underneath it."

What: Stanford Summer Theater presents Sam Shepard's play "Curse of the Starving Class," along with free film screenings and a symposium on Shepard's work as a playwright, screenwriter and actor.

Where and when: All events are at Stanford University. Play performances are July 19-Aug. 12, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., in Pigott Theater. The symposium is July 28 from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Pigott Theater, and film screenings are 7 p.m. Mondays, July 9-Aug. 6 in Annenberg Auditorium.

Cost: Play tickets are $25 general and $15 for students and seniors, with group discounts available. The symposium is $90, including lunch, and the film series is free.

Info: For more information, go to or call 650-798-4072.

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