EgoPo Classic Theater explores the fertile theatrical ground of Sam Shepard this season in revivals of ‘Curse of the Starving Class’ ‘Fool for Love’ and his Pulitzer Prize winning stunner ‘Buried Child’ currently on stage at the Latvian Society Theater in Philadelphia.
The play is one of Shepard’s most scabrous works. A true tagi-comedy about myths of the American Dream. it is set on the fallow Illinois farm of Dodge and Halie, an elderly couple whose marriage has descended into a constant argument, often centered by the wayward paths of their two sons.
Halie is preparing to go out from her upstairs bedroom and hectoring Dodge about stopping smoking and taking his pills, her voice booming down the stairwell. She laments over her sons, Bradley and Tilden, once having promising futures, now aimless and underfoot. Dodge, meanwhile, is camped out downstairs on the couch coughing his head off, as he swills bourbon, pops pills and chain smokes.
Tilden has been profoundly affected by their disappointments. Once was star football player, ‘All-American,’ Hallie is fond of reminding him, he has just returned to live back on the farm from New Mexico, perhaps on the lam and trying to get his bearings by clinging to familial relationships and remnants of his former life.
Bradley ostensibly tries to keep things in order, or so he thinks. He cuts his hair when he is passed out, confiscates his booze and cleans up around him. Dodge fights off Bradley’s fussing and theirs is a mutually bullying relationship. Halie, meanwhile, has moved on in a fashion to cope with all of this dysfunction carrying on a fantasy relationship with a church pastor.
The drama and the comedy heats up when Tilden’s son, Vince, turns up after a six-year disappearance with his girlfriend Shelly and all hell breaks loose when no one seems to know him, except for Halie. Secrets, lies, resentments, jealousies and betrayals flare up through this strange reunion. Halie returns from church to discover all of the mayhem unfolding in her house and then all hell breaks loose.
Director Dane Eissler turns up the volume of Shepard’s more surreal plot twists in this family drama. There are increasingly puzzle and chunks of exposition are just more pieces to the puzzle. It is American gothic portrait at its most poignant and corroded. A satiric character study, with echoes of No Exit with a Twilight Zone twist or three.
Even with some bumpy transitional scenes as the scenario get more absurd, Eissler and a strong ensemble cast deliver Shepard’s electrifying dialogue cycles that resonate more than ever 40 years later.
Simpson and Wallace give great performances, and their dramatic gravitas and well as their adversarial comedic chemistry is riveting. Walter De Shields is haunting as Tilden, who zones out and becomes a silent child at any given time, giving up trying to communicate with Halie and Dodge, instead receding into an almost catatonic state. Carlo Campbell’s Bradley is alternately aggressive, perhaps compensating for any feelings of physical vulnerability because he has a prosthetic leg.
Merci Lyons Cox and Mark Christie have a lot of heavy lifting as Shelly and Vince, as the outliers who turn the linear narrative inside out. Shelly wants to get out of there, but finds herself thrust in the middle of the ugly family meltdown. Cox and Christie’s millennial naturism to these roles gives this couple, and the play, a more contemporary feel.
The production design by Colin McIlvaine is vintage 70s Americana down to the earth tone furniture, wood vaulted windows and creepy stairwell. The symbolism is rich, especially in tandem with Molly Jo’s slashing filmic lighting design and Chris Saninno design of meditative music that flames out ominously.
Shepard died in 2017 from complications of ALS and there has never been a more appropriate time for EgoPo to remind us what an adroit and passionate observer of the delusions of the American psyche he was, now when we need it most.