Monday, March 28, 2016

"Buried Child" - Life on the edge

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Monique Carboni

Rain can have a very cleansing effect. Washing away the dust accumulated from years of neglect and stagnation to reveal something new or long forgotten. It can also unearth secrets that some would wish stay buried forever. All of which happens in Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child, currently being given an absolutely riveting revival by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The story takes place in a ramshackle home somewhere in the middle of Illinois. Perhaps the structure is all that's left of a once-thriving farm, though no crops have been grown there for at least 35 years. Kudos to scenic designer Derek McLane for envisioning the somewhat rundown set which perfectly fits the bleak mood depicted. 

Said dwelling is the home of a rather dysfunctional family. Dodge (Ed Harris), the patriarch in name only, smokes and drinks too much, has lost the use of his legs and seems to be in the beginning stages of dementia. His rather pious wife Halie (Amy Madigan), has the tendency to ramble on as if nothing is worthy of her attention, other than what she wishes to see. Son Tilden (Paul Sparks), who at one point, seemingly had everything going for him in life, has retreated completely inside himself. So much so he's a virtual cipher - with more than a bit of creepiness about him. Tilden apparently now living at home because he has nowhere else to go. Dropping by at points is Dodge and Halie's other son, Bradley (Rich Sommer). Someone definitely not the family favorite. That honor, at least as far as Halie is concerned, goes to their deceased child Ansel; who was once a basketball player and later, a solider. Halie currently urging the city council to erect a statue in Ansel's memory.

The family's existence, for want of a better word, is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected appearance of Tilden's son Vince (Nat Wolff). Vince is returning home after an eight-year absence, only to find, to his great shock, that no one recognizes him. Accompanying Vince is his friend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga); expecting, from what she had been told, a scene out of a Norman Rockwell picture. Though the situation in which she soon finds herself is quickly revealed to be anything but, as the two interlopers try find a way to coexist with a family that clearly prefers they not be there.

As Vince tries to find out what happened in the years he's been away, and Shelly tries to hang onto her sanity as the situation threatens to become rather volatile, it becomes apparent that what we are seeing is no less than the destruction of the American Dream. Where just about everyone's hopes for the future have come crashing down in flames. It's not a coincidence that the phrase "All American" is used several times during the play. Both in regards to Tilden's past and in reference to Ansel and the vast potential Halie firmly believes he had. Any contrary claim made in regards to the deceased being quickly denied. Though since Ansel actually expired in a motel room, there is the possibility that he wasn't the wholesome type Halie would have us believe.

More than a family that's in denial of their past, it's also one that's basically given up on living. Dodge has long since let his farm and life go to seed, and having few if any friends - he has no idea who his neighbors are for example, and what's more doesn't care to find out. His one great joy in life is sneaking a drink whenever he can from a little bottle he always keeps nearby, even though he's been forbidden to do so for health reasons. These sips being tiny victories against the constant rules and restrictions he now has to face - laid down by others in the family. 

This crippling fatalism Dodge carries has also trickled down to Bradley. Like his father, the younger man is also a bit of a brute and, like the rest of the family, can appear rather threatening. Though Bradley is without the gentle awkwardness Tilden sometimes displays, or Dodge's continuous series of cynical wisecracks. Qualities which serve to humanize both of these characters in a way Bradley is not.

Just as the prospect of being forced to face some harsh truths terrifies this clan to its core - Vince and Shelly's arrival becoming the catalyst for the reveal of a dark and terrible secret - one that that continues to simultaneously bind the family together and tear it apart - so too is the reality Vince faces when he realizes that the home he wanted to come back to is nothing like how he remembered it to be. A home which is now threatening to draw him back to where there is no escape. 

Scott Elliott's direction is absolutely spot on here, keeping the story moving nicely, while allowing Shepard's dialogue - which is perfectly delivered for maximum effect - to have a veiled threat behind almost every word spoken. Just as important are the frequent pregnant pauses and momentary silences which fill the atmosphere with tension as the situation depicted grows ever more unpredictable. Another essential element present throughout most of the story is the steady sound of the rain continually beating on the outside of the house. One wondering what it will uncover when it finally ends - other than various amounts of fresh vegetables. Excellent work by sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom in this regard.

Harris is superb as the aging Dodge, a man unable to escape the past he helped create. The character more than making up for his lack of physical mobility with grimaces, gestures and an attitude that shifts with each passing second. Qualities he uses to attempt to turn each new situation to his advantage. Madigan is very good as the as staid and hard-as-a-rock Halie. A woman determined to continue to shape her future into something that she can control; she apparently having little luck with such opportunities in her past. Sparks offers a continuing mystery as Tilden, a once promising fellow broken by the world outside, with no seeming way of telling who or what he will care about. He also has at least a few moments of understanding with Shelly, such as when he watches her peeling carrots. Their non-verbal interaction being a kind of calm before a very powerful and unforgiving storm. Sommer is nicely threatening as Bradley, someone who ultimately shows himself to be just as empty inside as his parents. 

This inability to deal with reality is also apparent in the actions of Father Dewis (Larry Pine), a local Protestant Minister and who, when faced with the truth, not only refuses to accept it, but also refuses to acknowledge its existence even when it's staring him in the face. Farmiga is fine as Shelly, perhaps the only truly rational person present. Though she is more of a reactive character than anyone else in the play, which limits her responses and actions somewhat. Wolff is interesting as Vince, a young man who experiences his own personal encounter with the past and who, like everyone else, is forced to reconcile the past he remembers with the one that actually happened, and then choose to go on from there, or not.

It's been often said that you can't go home again. However there are times when that saying should be changed to "you shouldn't go home again and more to the point, don't even try". Such is the case with this very enthralling production of Buried Child. Where even the driving rain can't wash away this particular family's sins.

Featuring Taissa Farmiga (Shelly), Ed Harris (Dodge), Amy Madigan (Halie), Larry Pine (Father Dewis), Rich Sommer (Bradley), Paul Sparks (Tilden), Nat Wolff (Vince)

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Production Supervision: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager
Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Cathy Popowytsch
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 3, 2016

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