Sam Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 with his play “Buried Child,” which is now running in Madison NJ as the Autumn production of Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ). A dystopian American Dream gone horribly awry, this play is a first for STNJ. Never before has the company presented a Shepard play and, with Paul Mullins at the helm, you have a taut psychological dram-edy that has dark humor, as well as the feeling of turning over a basket in the yard and finding a nest of snakes.
This is the post-Modern extension of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, amply demonstrating that, while we feel that middle of the country farm-folk are simple, happy, and natural, people are people everywhere, with the same thrumming heart-of-darkness, and city-folk disaffectation that is found around the globe. And oh, what a family we’ve found. Rather than the emergence from isolation, as in Anderson’s cycle of short stories, Shepard gives us individual descents into some very personal madnesses that overlap like Venn diagrams, or fluctuating borders. Considering other works popular at the time of its premiere–the movies “Halloween” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”–this play shares the zeitgeist and vision of yellow green biliousness, rather than the rose-colored glasses of the 1950s.
The play opens with the heads of the family, Dodge (Sherman Howard) and Halie (Carol Halstead), having a classic married-folk conversation. Years of loving one another, then the living that comes after the fire cools a bit, leads to other conflagrations. Their heat is around arguments–a different kind of passion. Hints are dropped like a coquette’s handkerchief at a barn dance and, at each intermission, the audience ponders what we’ve seen. The two intermissions give us much needed processing time, as we begin to stitch the crazy-quilt together. Tilden (Anthony Marble) is the eldest—or middle?—son returned home after a mysterious absence. Howard, Halstead, and Marble, oh my, create an odd triangle–a pointy, poky Venn diagram that will have your brain working long after you’ve left the theatre. Bradley (Roger Clark) is the plodding and dependable son, thrumming with a dark river of violence very near the surface. When Tilden’s grown son Vince (Paul Cooper) stops in for a surprise visit to his grandparents with his girlfriend Shelly (Andrea Morales), one begins to wonder whether Vince and Shelly actually exist, or is the entire farmhouse in the middle of Illinois a kind of wormhole. Ansel is another brother who’s mentioned in the past-tense, Halie rhapsodizing about her eldest, and what about the baby—the eponymous Buried Child? You will have three acts’ worth of questions and you may not be prepared for the answers.
Michael Schweikardt’s sets and Tony Galaska’s lighting combine to give us a sepia-esque faded, fly-specked photograph of what must have once been a vibrant farmhouse. Andrea Hood’s costumes give us the flavor of the period and remind us what a different world it was in 1978. Erik T. Lawson’s sound designs add portent and Paul Mullins’ vision is a historic and crispy-dark view of flying too close to the sun. When Michael Dale, as the benighted and morally-challenged Father Dewis (just listen to the name–listen), visits, he most assuredly gets something different from what he has grown to expect. But then, isn’t real life just like that? The ensemble effortlessly spins an unbelievably dysfunctional, real-feeling world that had me crawling up the back of my seat without even realizing I was doing it. “Buried Child” is an arresting piece of theatre that has as much to say now as 40 years ago. Or perhaps, even more.
“Buried Child” runs through October 7! Get those tickets now and take a friend with you. You’ll want to have a coffee, or a cocktail, and a very long conversation afterward. Call 973/408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org
for your tickets today!