Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Buried Child

Sam Shepard's Buried Child presents the American nightmare. Family is poisonous; religion is useless; ambition is pointless; nothing has been planted in over 30 years. A bizarre, rotted Norman Rockwell painting, Buried Child knows that the American Dream is an unreachable tease to most people.

Ed Harris, Paul Sparks
Photo: Monique Carboni
Shepard's play melds naturalism and symbolism, with each character's flaws--and they have many--representing something larger and deeper. Dodge, the father/grandfather, is a sick alcoholic full of anger and shame; his son, the one-legged Bradley, is an emotionally ugly man swimming against a tide of fury; his other son, the soft-headed Tilden, is almost silent, perhaps obsessing mentally about the many horrors in his past. Halie, the mother/grandmother, seems healthier than the men, even "normal," but she is a religious hypocrite, sleeping with a minister and constantly rewriting the past.

Into this menage comes Vince, Tilden's son, with his girlfriend Shelly. Shelly is from another world; she finds even the simple word "grampa" hysterically funny. She enters the house with a Norman Rockwell fantasy that is shattered within seconds. Vince too has his expectations dashed, since none of his relatives recognize him.

As with all family plays, fights are fought and secrets are told, but in Buried Child the truth remains elusive, and redemption is not on the menu.

Buried Child is a vividly written, deeply unpleasant play that is in turns entertaining and disturbing, and always thought- and emotion-provoking. The New Group production (at the Signature Theatre) has the tremendous advantage of Ed Harris as Dodge. I wish the other performances were up to his subtle, real, weirdly beautiful turn. Not that the others are bad--in fact, most are excellent. However, under Scott Elliot's uneven direction, they sometimes seem to be in different plays, and it was Ed Harris' version I wanted to see.

While the audience with which I saw Buried Child was largely well-behaved,  a couple behind me talked through much of the play, mostly at the "huh?" and "what's happening?" level of conversation. I don't want to be judgmental, so I'll avoid adjectives here and just write what happened. At the end of the play, when Tilden appears with the skeleton of his infant child, clearly dug up from the backyard, a moment of deep theatrical silence, one of the couple blurted, loudly, "Is it a monkey?" My friend and I laughed, but in reality, it was a very sad moment of theatre-going.
end of spoiler

Buried Child, which is a three-act play, is presented here without intermission, allowing no respite from the intensity. It's an effective decision; if not for the concentration-shattering comment of the couple in back of me late in the play, I don't think I would have breathed for the last five minutes.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row K center)

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