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Live lamb on stage part of ‘Curse of the Starving Class’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You may go to “Curse of the Starving Class,” for award-winning playwright Sam Shepard’s quirky characters and poignant writing, for director Lauren Dusek Albonico’s insightful interpretation or for the seamless presentation of the talented cast and crew.

But likely you’ll always remember Lambo.

Lambo, a coddled lamb who lives with Albonico and her family and has a personal animal-wrangling assistant, plays an unfortunate sheep in the Vortex production, whose illness brings him inside the family kitchen.

“I love Sam Shepard because his work is very physical. He’s into making messes on stage,” Albonico explains, adding that Lambo won’t steal every scene, because he’s only onstage for two of them.

Permissive city zoning regulations and Albonico’s proximity to the Vortex made it possible to use the live lamb instead of a prop, she says. She’s tried to make the set realistic, also using a running-water sink and a stove where the Tate family of four cook their breakfast of bacon and eggs.

The play is one of Shepard’s plays influenced by his youth of growing up on a ranch with an alcoholic father. In “Curse of the Starving Class,” the Tate family struggles desperately to hang on to their family farm, against outside forces that seem to scheme against them. The cast features John Wylie and Catherine Hughes as parents Weston and Ella, and Alex Wasson and Caroline Graham as their teenage children, Wesley and Emma.

“The story centers on a very timely issue,” Albonico says. “A family upside-down on their mortgage, struggling to keep it all together.”

Although Shepard wrote the play in the mid-1970s, it seems prophetic of the time just before the market collapse of 2008, Albonico says.

With a couple of tweaks, she’s moved the play to the near past: “It still fits right in that time that led to the economic downfall.”

The characters shift from adolescence to adulthood to old age, but their problems remain stable. She explains that they have a door that always needs repair, mounds of laundry, incessant mud and the ill sheep, of course. All of which appears in the family kitchen, the heart of their home.

“They clamber as we all do, awkwardly, defiantly, towards hope and some semblance of family love,” she says.

It could be easy to drop into the dark tragedy of the play and lose the lighter, subtle hope and comedy that carries the family through it all, she says.

“That’s the challenge — to not let the heaviness swallow the love and the hope.”