By Ruth Ross
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," but the Vronskys’ trials pale in comparison to those faced by the family at the center of Sam Shepard’s searing Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Buried Child.
Produced for the first time by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Shepard’s play voyeuristically peers into the drab, derelict Illinois farmhouse inhabited by a dysfunctional family, down on its luck for decades. Over the course of a rainy afternoon and subsequent morning, terrible secrets are explosively revealed, layer by layer, just as corn is husked and carrots are pared onstage. (Left, Anthony Marble and Sherman Howard)
In Buried Child, Shepard addresses the failure of the American Dream, the idea that, with hard work and determination, anyone can succeed in life. And, in the typically Midwestern notion that offspring that the family business (in this case, a farm) should be passed down through the generations. The emptiness of this myth was as true in 1979 when Shepard wrote the play as it was in 2008 when the economy crashed and as it is today, when American farmers are bailed out by the federal government to make up for the hardships imposed on them by retaliatory tariffs. Likewise, the belief in American Morality takes a similar beating, for this family’s secrets involve not only murder and adultery but that most heinous of immoral acts: incest.
Alcoholic, dying patriarch Dodge presides over a farm that hasn’t produced a crop in 35 years, yet he can reel off a long list of his farm equipment with great precision. His nagging wife Halie, a disembodied voice for most of the first act, is having an affair with the minister, Father Dewis. While their two surviving sons, emotionally disturbed Tilden and amputee Bradley, are expected to care for their aging parents, Halie idolizes Ansel, the All-American basketball player/war hero who was killed on his wedding night by his wife’s Catholic relatives. Appearing unexpectedly on the scene is Vincent, Tilden’s son (above right,Anthony Marble and Paul Cooper), whom no one seems to recognize, and his 19-year-old girlfriend Shelly. Their appearance, as agents from the outside world of reality, upends this family’s carefully preserved world and brings it crashing down on their heads.
The cast Director Paul Mullins has assembled is more than up to the task of portraying these distasteful people. Sherman Howard is superb as cantankerous, irritable Dodge; his sotto voce responses to his wife’s nagging are droll yet sad. He manages to make a thoroughly unlikeable character sympathetic, despite the despicable act he’s reputed to have done. As Tilden, Anthony Marble turns in a heartbreaking performance; despite his having little to say, his body English telegraphs the anguished loneliness of his carrying around and concealing a terrible secret. Roger Clark’s Bradley is an obnoxious boor to the max; his frantically scooting around the floor when his artificial leg is taken from him is very satisfying comeuppance for this awful man. And Carol Halstead’s Halie (above, right, with Michael Dale) has to be the most irritating woman every onstage. When she finally appears, her physical attributes are equally as annoying as her voice. Watching her deflate in the penultimate scene, as the secret is revealed, is worth the price of admission. My only quibble is that her final speech—indeed, the last of the play—is delivered too quickly, as though she’s reading a script, and in a sing-song voice. It’s the only false note in the play.
More sympathetic are Paul Cooper as Vincent and Andrea Morales as Shelly (right, with Roger Clark), the two unwitting observers from the outside world who set in motion this debacle. Trying to jog his grandfather’s memory, Cooper’s Vincent earnestly recalls things they did together when he was younger. Yet his glee at the final turn of events makes one wonder whether his initial intentions were really all that innocent—and whether he’s more like his family than he thought. Morales’s Shelly provokes the proceedings; her insistence on finding the truth leads her to ask, “What happened to this farm anyway,” after viewing family photos on the walls of Halie’s room. Morales’ fear of Bradley, not unfounded, is palpable; her eyes dart around the room as he places his hand in her mouth, scaring the audience as to what he might do. As the single character with any sense of decency, she’s the only one who manages to escape. And as Halie’s lover, Father Dewis, Michael Dale is appropriately smarmy and totally out of his element to minister to this strange, tortured family. He represents a total failure of morality and religion.
The set on which Buried Child unfolds is depressing. Michael Schweikardt’s set features hideous, stained floral wallpaper and a ratty sofa that mirror the drabness of the family’s life. Erik T. Lawson’s sound design includes driving rain and premonitory thunder; he has also composed original music played during the two intermissions. Tony Galaska’s atmospheric lighting reinforces the darkness at the heart of the family. And Andrea Hood’s costumes suit the characters; Shelly’s red top is the only bright color in a cheerless palette.
The myths of American Dream and American Morality are tales we tell ourselves to feel better, even as the world is coming down around us. Just reading the paper reveals the hollowness of both: Despite holding two or more jobs, many people cannot climb out of poverty, and college-educated young people move home because they cannot support themselves. Politicians professing Family Values found in compromising situations have been outed. That Dodge’s farm has produced nothing for decades is reflective of his inability to deal with a grave moral dilemma. Only when the terrible secret is on the verge of being revealed does corn grow, followed by a huge crop of vegetables that suddenly appears at the end of the play. With Dodge, Tilden and Bradley out of the way, a new generation, Vincent, can make its way in the world.
About playwrighting, Sam Shepard wrote that “[b]eginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster …. The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.” It is true for this play.
So just who is the Buried Child? Well, I’ll leave that to you to discover. Just know that there’s more than one—and not all are in the grave.
Buried Child will be performed through October 7 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. For tickets and performance information, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.
Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.