A lot going on under the surface
A lot going on under the surface

'Buried Child' Is Family Not-So-Friendly

Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child, like many of the works he wrote in his prolific, brilliant middle period, operates on many levels: as a harrowing look at a Midwestern family gone way wrong; as late-20th-century Greek tragedy; as a meditation on the disintegrating concept of the nuclear family and, by extension, the crumbling fabric of American home and hearth itself.

It’s a brooding piece punctuated by occasional lacerations of dark humor, the kind of play on which the Hunger Artists, the Fullerton-based troupe now in its 14th year, cut its teeth. And though the company’s personnel has changed greatly over that time, it’s refreshing to see them return to their raw, uncompromising roots with this production.

Shepard wrote Buried Child in 1978, after 15 years of acclaim in New York’s avant-garde theater. Though it contained touches of the bizarre, it was his first fully accessible play. With mainstream American theater—which was already well on its way to selling its soul to glitzy mega-musicals and tired revivals—desperately awaiting a savior, it anointed Shepard as its Chosen One. During the next seven years, there was no bigger name in American drama, and he was up to the task, producing an exhilarating string of plays that included True West, Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.

But Buried Child was the first big one, so any production of this play carries high expectations. For the most part, this Hunger Artists production delivers.

Though a helter-skelter approach to the acting makes the whole a bit difficult to process at times—some in the seven-person cast are going for “subtly nuanced,” while others shoot for “garishly over-the-top”—director Katie Chidester succeeds in the most important objective: showcasing what an awesome talent Shepard was at his relatively short-lived peak.

We find ourselves in an Illinois farmhouse that, like its tenants, has seen far better days. There’s patriarch Dodge, a wheezing, alcoholic seventysomething who seems to be withering away; his wife, Halie, content to wallow in nostalgia as a mechanism to avoid the bleak present; and their sons, Tilden and Bradley, polar opposites in terms of intensity and aggression, but each imbued with an air of menace.

We know early on that the family has some catastrophic secret at work (and, yes, the play’s title is a clue).

Upending this fragile balance is the arrival of Tilden’s son, Vince, and his fashionably chic New York City girlfriend, Shelly. Vince has returned home after six years, filled with warm memories of turkey dinners and family gatherings. But he and Shelly quickly realize that this family portrait is more Edvard Munch than Norman Rockwell.

By 1978, Shepard had jettisoned the absurd leanings of his early period: No man-sized lobsters crawl onstage in Buried Child. That’s not to say that there aren’t some weird occurrences. Tilden, for instance, frequently vanishes from the house and returns holding ears of corn—even though Dodge constantly hectors him that the farm hasn’t produced corn since 1939. And then there’s the fact that brother Bradley stomps around stage with a fake leg—he cut the original off with a chain saw.

But the craziest thing of all is that no one seems to recognize Vince, who, after realizing this, spirals into his own void, leaving the house with $2 of Dodge’s money and promising to return with whiskey. He leaves the gorgeous Shelly behind to fend for herself—a challenge, what with a lecherous old sot glaring at her from the couch and a one-legged crazy guy commanding her to open her mouth as wide as possible, and then jamming his fingers down her throat.

Yet, the next morning, everything seems almost bucolic—until Tilden arrives completely shitfaced and Halie returns from church with a morally dubious man of the cloth. This sets into motion the play’s big reveal, one that would make Sophocles smile in appreciation.

Chidester’s dark-hued direction—lights, set, pacing—matches the brooding feel of Shepard’s script, perhaps a bit too well. This is already a discomfiting play; a production that magnifies the gloom runs a serious risk of turning it into an unwatchable train wreck.

Fortunately, Ken Dalena’s Dodge and Kelly Sue Eder’s Shelly provide the appropriate touches of gallows humor. Coupled with Robert Tully’s grotesque Bradley and Anthony Galleran’s sensitive Tilden, there is enough to help guide the audience through the jagged twists and turns of this remarkably damaged clan.

Shepard would revisit the themes of family, obligation and sins of the past many times after Buried Child; his later works, particularly A Lie of the Mind,are probably better plays. But anyone curious about why Shepard’s name is still spoken in such reverential tones by so many theater people need only watch this production to understand.

Buried Child at Hunger Artists Theatre Co., 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.net. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through April 11. $15-$18.

This review appeared in print as "Family Not-So-Friendly: With Buried Child, the Hunger Artists show us why Sam Shepard is still revered."


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