Shepard’s flock: Neil McCarthy and Leila Henrique in Curse of the Starving Class by US playwright Sam Shepard. Picture: SUPPLIED
Shepard’s flock: Neil McCarthy and Leila Henrique in Curse of the Starving Class by US playwright Sam Shepard. Picture: SUPPLIED

Director Sylvaine Strike staged Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class in Stellenbosch, 40 years to the day after it was first performed on March 2 1978.

"I’ve always felt that I completely get him," Strike says about the US playwright, who died in 2017 and whose work is being acknowledged again, with local productions planned.

This is Shepard’s most autobiographical work about his father, who features in many of his plays. But this one deals mostly with the little people targeted by the greedy. Curse of the Starving Class circles around a dysfunctional family as their farm collapses.

"It’s the perfect nuclear family — a mother, father and two children, a son and a daughter — and they’re completely dysfunctional," says Strike.

She staged Molière’s The Miser and Tartuffe recently and moving to Shepard made complete sense to her.

She ensures his play is not all about the horrors of hardship — there’s always hope and a smile. Strike makes light of things where she can with movement and lewd characters.

Her cast is an indication of her intent. It’s a wildly talented bunch including Neil McCarthy, Rob van Vuuren, Leila Henriques, Roberto Pombo, Anthony Coleman, Inge Crafford-Lazarus and Damon Berry.

McCarthy, who plays the father Weston, returned to the stage with a flamboyant flourish for Tartuffe and asked Strike to consider him for her next work.

Henriques is Ella and her heart-wrenching vulnerability is another casting coup. Their children are played by relative newbies Pombo and Crafford-Lazarus, who were put through strenuous auditions, which they passed with flying colours.

Nothing is ever random for Strike and that’s what makes the casting so exciting and intriguing. There’s something messy and chaotic about a Shepard play, which is why the rhythms of the characters are so important. "It also gives the actors a sense of safety," she says.

Shepard was as much a musician in his early days as a writer. Rhythm led him to character and Strike uses music to get her actors marching to the right beat.

"I adore bluegrass music," she says about her choices of Canadian band The Dead South and Australian Paul Kelly during rehearsals. "It is often profound, despite its joviality and upbeat rhythms," she says. "Shepard’s writing is musical, he himself was a percussionist, and adored music. His work in many ways reminds one of jazz compositions. It is unpredictable and yet impeccably structured."

Other influences include the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, both of whom evoke a certain desolation and deep feelings of loss.

Holding all of this together is Strike’s insight, which is where her genius comes into play.