At the Writers Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe—Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” opened in 1978 and created quite a stir. The play won a Pulitzer Prize in drama and established Shepard as a major, if idiosyncratic voice in the American theater. But the play also attracted its share of nay- sayers, calling it a shambles of a drama and pointless as well as pretentious.
The Writers Theatre is reviving “Buried Child,” allowing new viewers to make their own evaluation of the show’s merits while veteran viewers get their chance to reassess Shepard’s script now that it is securely in the canon of American theater. There might not be unanimity of opinion on the play’s merits, or failings, but viewers can’t say they were short-changed on the excellence of the acting and the quality of the staging.
“Buried Child” is set in rural Illinois during the 1970’s. The story is played out inside a ramshackle farmhouse that is home to the curmudgeonly and elderly Dodge and Halie, his harridan of a wife and 10 years younger. They make a really odd couple, but no odder than their sons, a pair of creepy grotesques named Tilden and Bradley.
Halfway through the play Dodge’s 22-year old grandson Vince enters, on the road from Los Angeles with his girlfriend Shelly. Vince is on his way to New Mexico to visit his father Tilden, unaware that the man is now living in Illinois after fleeing the Southwest for an unspecified but possibly sinister reason. The seventh character in the play is the church minister Father Dewis who apparently has established a naughty relationship with Halie.
There are plenty of incidents in “Buried Child” but no coherent plot. The play thrusts many puzzlements on the audience. Vince has been absent only six years but Dodge says he doesn’t recognize him. Dodge denies being the father of Tilden or Bradley, claiming instead that his child is actually buried in the back yard. On his first entrance, Bradley sees his father sleeping on a couch and immediately whips out an electric razor and starts cutting the sleeping man’s hair. Tilden brings in an armful of sweet corn to be shucked, claiming he picked it in the back yard, but Dodge insists he hasn’t planted sweet corn in years and accuses his son of stealing it, which the sullen Tilden denies. Bradley demands that Shelly allow him to stick his fingers in her open mouth. Tilden asks Shelly to allow him to touch her rabbit-fur coat and then holds it reverently.
Periodically, there are references to Halie’s mysterious baby. Tilden says his father murdered the child and buried it on the farmhouse grounds. The question of whether the baby actually existed is resolved in Dodge’s long monologue near the end of the play, ending in the spooky final seconds.
The tone of the play swings from comedy to eeriness to menace to shouting arguments so the audience is likely to be confused about how they should take a particular scene or character. The production is dominated by Larry Yando’s expansive performance as Dodge. Yando is superb as the decrepit, disagreeable old man who bullies and rants, and yet is the most entertaining figure in the show. Nearly all of the play’s abundant comedy flows from Yando’s performance, and the opening night audience ate him up.
But do Yando’s delicious comic moments excessively override the play’s serious element? The play has a strong underpinning of tragedy that may be eroded by Yando’s superb belligerent comedy. The audience is required to shift gears between Dodge’s crude comedy and the play’s weird moments (the fingers in the mouth) and a scary frenzy by Vance who stumbles back to the farmhouse after an all night bout of drinking, destructive and out of control. When Shelly finally departs alone, fed up with the family’s unsettling conduct, we can only congratulate her on escaping from a loony bin.
The program notes place “Buried Child” in a context of describing collapsing American family values in rural America and by extension indicting the country for ignoring the deterioration of rural society in general. But that presupposes that Dodge and his bizarre family are a template for the decline of the rural American way of life. But Dodge, Halie, Tilden, Bradley, and Vance are so far off the grid of typical American life that it seems nonsensical to elevate these oddballs into generic victims of some national social injustice.
I don’t buy attempts to explore “Buried Child” in terms of social significance, but I will give the play props for entertainment value, especially because I don’t have to spend any time with the characters in real life. The nearly three hours I shared them at the Writers Theatre is satisfactory.
Director Kimberly Senior’s production doesn’t attempt to answer the play’s countless narrative questions, which are probably unanswerable in any case. The characters are who they are in the playwright’s world, variously intimidating, farcical, unpredictable, and psychologically and mentally warped. They make for a strange brew and I can understand how they would be absorbing company for some audiences and ludicrous and off-putting for others.
The viewer may be confused about who these characters are and how they got to their present fearful state, but the Writers Theatre ensemble has nailed every role. Yando’s Dodge remains the centerpiece of the production, but he receives potent support from Shannon Cochran as the brassy Halie, Mark L. Montgomery as the brooding Tilden, Timothy Edward Kane as the tightly wound Bradley, and Shane Kenyon as Vince, who starts out perplexed by what he finds in the old homestead and finally goes ballistic at the end of the evening.
The two outsiders characters who shudder at the emotional inferno stirred up by the family are played with appropriate unease by Arti Ishak as Shelly and Allen Gilmore as Father Dewis.
Kimberly Senior makes the narrative accessible, with gripping moments of silence alternating with raw humor and edgy verbal battles that keep the audience off balance and guessing. The designers combine to creating an ambience that seems both realistic and ambiguous. So applause to Jack Magaw (scenic designer), Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes), Heather Gilbert (lighting), and Mikhail Fiksel (sound).
“Buried Child” clearly isn’t for all tastes. Viewers who appreciate a tight script with no loose ends will find the play bogged down in pseudo symbolism, off the wall characters, and motivationless actions. But viewers who think they have Shepard’s dramatic and theatrical goals figured out will find the revival full of adult pleasures set forth by a stage loaded with superior actors who understand the play even if spectators are baffled.
The show gets a rating of
“Buried Child” runs through June 17 at the Writers Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. (with some Wednesday matinees at 3 p.m.), Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com May 2018
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