to Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child is a seven character play that probes family dynamics in the American tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but Shepard does it in utterly original style and with a modernist twist that reinvents and reinvigorates the form.
Buried Child takes place on an Illinois farm–American heartland. Before it’s over, it has migrated in tone closer to the emotional state of Appalachian West Virginia, not so far away geographically, but a world away sociologically. Under the facade of wholesome, hard working, God-fearing family values lie dark secrets, forbidden desires, and emotional turmoil. The very meaning of family comes into question as these characters threaten, disparage, repudiate, and snipe at one another, yet somehow remain locked in their family unit, trapped in long term patterns of mutual destructiveness.
It’s a very dark vision, indeed, but Shepard then clothes this bleak portrait in a unique combination of genuinely funny comedic dialogue, puzzling and unresolved contradictions, and an atmosphere charged with foreboding, menace and the threat of violence. Drawing out these seemingly contradictory tones and keeping them in just the right balance to knit the whole together on stage requires finely tuned acting and direction. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of both in American Conservatory Theater’s current revival.
Dodge is the patriarch, parked for the most part on the sofa, coughing, drinking, smoking, complaining, and spewing forth the funniest lines, sardonic and cutting. As an old man, he’s powerless and dependent, but he hasn’t lost his voice. ("I’m an invisible man," he complains.) In the best performance of the evening, John Seitz seems like he belongs in that room and in that family. His timing is impeccable and he’s the only member of the cast who seems to fully inhabit his role.
Frances Lee McCain as his wife, Halie, never gets the necessary hard edge in her early monologue of nagging, in her bigotry or her insincere religious morality. So when later on she is shown drinking and carrying on with the preacher, the turnabout doesn’t have the dramatic impact it should. (And in a farm family fallen on hard times, why, in the first act, is she wearing shoes that look more like Saks Fifth Avenue than Sears?)
If Dodge has been rendered invisible, his two living sons are also not quite all there either. Tilden (Mario Barricelli) has returned home after having unspecified problems where he was living in New Mexico. He’s a former All American football player, but now he’s grubby and inarticulate and spends his time harvesting corn while Dodge insists there’s been no corn since 1935. Son Bradley (Robert Parsons) wears a prosthesis–he chopped off his leg with a chainsaw and now likes to sneak up on his father and shave his head. There was another son, Ansel, who was a basketball star and a soldier, but was killed in a motel room under unspecified circumstances. It’s a family of shattered hopes and undone dreams.
Enter Vince (Neil Hopkins), the grandson, with Shelly (Rene Augesen), his girlfriend. He hasn’t been home in six years and now finds none of his family recognizing him; his feelings of exclusion ("Am I being punished?") and resulting frustration become the catalyst for the ultimate revelation of secrets. Hopkins is over his head in this role, reading his important third act monologue without conviction or inflection; it becomes just a spillage of words. Augesen does better as the outsider, the surrogate for the audience, wondering what is going on in this strange family and growing ever more anxious to escape from the violence which seems ready to erupt at any time.
The set is all wrong–an architectural statement of strong lines, drawing more attention to itself as design than helping to establish an ominous sense of profound rot and decay.
But it’s director Les Waters who is accountable here. He neither achieves the possible levels ofhilarity in the humor nor creates the threatening, edgy underside of horror, the essences of Shepard’s approach to the drama. The critical scene in which Bradley puts his finger in Shelley’s mouth should have the impact of witnessing a rape. Here it seems more like adolescents at play. The unevenness of the performances precludes any semblance of ensemble. As a result, ACT’s production plays more like a UPN sitcom that the great American play it is.