THE BASICS: Sam Shepard won a Pulitzer prize in 1979 for this creepy family drama, set in a strange and troubled American heartland. The present production, by Torn Space Theater, plays weekends through March 16th at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Avenue. David Oliver directs a cast of seven. The play, with its two intermissions, runs fully 2 ½ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action takes place in the living room of a farmhouse in Illinois, 1970’s. The owner-family, unnamed, and presided over by the bickering Dodge and Halie, has seen better days. Much better. Ever since the time of a horrible, hushed-up scandal, bad things have been happening to these people. The land is perennially barren. One of three sons apparently died under strange circumstances, the other two have curdled (Bradley), withered (Tilden). When grandson Vince returns home with a girlfriend (Shelly) after a number of years, no one even recognizes him. Shelly, who cannot handle the situation, beats a quick path out when she sees the bonds of family seizing/transforming Vince. Meanwhile, the long fallow fields have burst fruitfully back into life. This has something to do with Tilden and a child buried long ago. I’ll say no more.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY AND THE PRODUCTION: The standout in the cast is Mark Donahue as Dodge, the clan’s diminished, grumpy, whiney, sharp-tongued patriarch. It’s the overarching role, and Donahue brings it fully and richly to life. Sharon Strait’s Halie is OK, but not special; she never really engages us. The same can be said of Patrick Moltane’s Tilden, a pathetic husk of a man. Matt Witten invests his character Bradley, a laughably vulnerable, one-legged bully, with the proper snarky quality. I also liked Tim Joyce in the small role of Dewis, the puffed-up, fumbling Pastor who is sweet on Halie. Vince and Shelly are tricky roles, requiring sudden shifts of character. Kurt Erb and Jessica Wegrzyn do their best, but do not ring particularly true.
Shepard’s play gets better as it goes along. The first act is a long slog. Things improve with the arrival of Vince and Shelly, and come to a decent boil in act three. The play’s final moments, if you don’t know what’s coming, could be something of a shock. Shepard laces interesting surreal and quasi-symbolic elements into this tale of the American Dream gone awry. The style leans toward
Pinter, with the meanings often teasingly out of reach. There is even a ray or two of sunshine at the end, for all those steadfast “hopers” (Dodge’s term) in the audience.
David Oliver has let the proceedings run too long, but he does get some good performances, and uses the set’s large upstage screen windows to excellent effect. Unfortunately, the Greg Faust set has a stark, sad, unreal quality to it, when the stranger Shelly speaks of the place as being like “a Norman Rockwell cover or something”. There is good lighting from Patty Rihn, and Jess Wegrzyn has done nicely with the costumes. I’d have greatly appreciated more in the way of sound–creepy, avante-garde, whatever.
BURIED CHILD is not for everyone, but it is ultimately quite meaty, and worthy of your consideration. If you are into societal malaise and failed personal relationships, and believe that “blood is thicker than anything”, this may be just your show!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!