Dramaworks has returned to the kind of play that is right in the theatre company’s wheelhouse, Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Buried Child. It fits perfectly with many of the family-focused plays the company has produced in the past, works by Edward Albee, Thorton Wilder, Horton Foote, Lorraine Hansberry, and Arthur Miller, to name but a few. I see parallels to particular Dramaworks productions, their 2007 revival of Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses also a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and its superb 2011 production of All My Sons by Arthur Miller, both of which involved sons returning to families that harbored secrets or strife.
Buried Child is an edge-of-your -seat riveting drama, perhaps the best of Dramaworks’ season. It is a drama which will have you thinking about it even when you don’t want to think about it, and the acting brings you right into the work, the audience never knowing where the explosive anger of the unpredictable characters might lead. Throughout its three acts the audience is just waiting for something, well, unspeakable to happen.
The works of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams laid a path for Shepard’s works as well. But in an interview with the “Paris Review” almost twenty years ago he said he mostly felt the influence of Pinter and Beckett on his work, saying. “The stuff that had the biggest influence on me was European drama in the sixties. That period brought theater into completely new territory—Beckett especially, who made American theater look like it was on crutches. I don’t think Beckett gets enough credit for revolutionizing theater, for turning it upside down.” Shepard brings an absurdist, surrealistic spin to his work and of all the playwrights I mentioned, his is the darkest view of the American family, and thus the American dream.
The drunken, damaged father of his plays comes from his own life experience. His relationship with his father was doomed when Shepard was young. He describes him as “boozed up, very violent and crazy.” When asked whether his father ever saw Buried Child, Shepard said, “he went to the show smashed, just pickled, and in the middle of the play he began to identify with some character, though I’m not sure which one, since all those characters are kind of loosely structured around his family. In the second act he stood up and started to carry on with the actors, and then yelled, 'What a bunch of shit this is!’ The ushers tried to throw him out. He resisted, and in the end they allowed him to stay because he was the father of the playwright. “
At the heart of Buried Child is the concept that you are only as sick as your secrets. In this case, a monstrous one – murder and incest -- one that corrupts the family although we’re constantly reassured by the clueless Protestant minister, Father Dewis, that the family is well thought of by the community. The family consists of the helpless though extremely toxic alcoholic centerpiece, the father, Dodge, the psychologically damaged son, Tilden, the physically (and psychologically) maimed son, Bradley, and, finally, the prodigal grandson, absent for six years, Tilden’s son, Vince. These impaired men have to deal with their mother, Dodge’s wife, Halie, a hardened, embittered woman who hypocritically spouts piety holding on to her companionship with Father Dewis who tries, unsuccessfully, to keep the peace. Finally, there is the “outsider”, Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly, the person who is closest to being “normal” whatever that might mean in this play.
Shepard leans heavily on symbolism, juxtaposing the family’s breakdown to the corruption of the American Dream itself. Here he further develops themes expounded by Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. The barren backyard in which the secret is harbored is also a surrealistic source of bountiful crops of corn and carrots. Perhaps it is Shepard’s statement of what might have been: reality vs. illusion, one of the drama’s leitmotifs.
The relatively brief first act establishes the setting, a run-down Illinois farmhouse in 1979 which is inhabited by Dodge, a wretched alcoholic, married to his flighty wife, Halie. They carry on a dialogue which sets the themes, and establishes the hopeless shambles of their lives. Dodge lies on the couch in disarray, watching TV, uncontrollably coughing, but mostly drinking and hiding the bottle. Halie, who speaks mostly unseen from upstairs, is getting ready to go out with Father Dewis, fleeing her feeble husband, and their two sons, the mentally challenged Tilden, who has returned from New Mexico after a long absence (with the implication of prison time) and who is now a dependent, and Bradley, who bullies Tilden and Dodge. Tilden wanders in – the spitting image of Lenny from Of Mice and Men – with corn from a field in back which is known to be barren – not having yielded crops since 1935. Tilden begins to husk the corn, leaving the shells on Dodge who has finally fallen deep asleep on the couch. Tilden exits as Bradley enters, limping, seeing the corn husks all over the place saying, what the hell is this? He pulls out hair clippers, takes Dodge’s hat off, and cuts off his hair, leaving bloody scars. This leads to a brief intermission, necessary to clean the stage, but unfortunate as the audience is already being held in the grip of the play’s tension.
The real dramatic action begins with the second act when Vince returns to see his family after such a long absence, Shelly in tow, only not to be recognized (or acknowledged) by his grandfather or even his own father, Tilden. An amusing exchange between Vince and Dodge establishes the estrangement:
VINCE: You haven't seen me for a long time.
DODGE: When was the last time?
VINCE: I don't remember.
DODGE: You don't remember?
DODGE: You don't remember. How am I supposed to remember if you don't remember?
It is a rude awakening given the idealized family that Vince wants to remember (and introduce his girl friend to). But when Shelly first sees the house, it is indeed the idealized image that fills her mind:
SHELLY: I don't believe it!....It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something.
VINCE: What's a’ matter with that? It's American.
SHELLY: Where's the milkman and the little dog? What’s the little dog’s name? Spot. Spot and Jane. Dick and Jane and Spot.
Dodge is perhaps the saddest, most reprehensible protagonist in contemporary American drama. He makes Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons look like a saint. In fact I think of Buried Child as being a grotesque Arthur Miller version 2.0, ratcheting up the corruption of the American Dream to a new level. Dodge is a dying, drunken provocateur, lashing out at anyone in earshot. One senses that the “secret” he keeps has eaten at him from within, but he is nonetheless able to express the “truth,” frequently with a kind of black humor which permeates the play
HALIE: You sit here day or night, festering away! Decomposing! Smelling up the house with your putrid body! Hacking your head off till all hours of the morning! Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood.
DODGE: He's not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood’s buried in the backyard!
Rob Donohoe gives an inspired performance as Dodge. It is particularly amazing that he completely inhabits the character having just completed his outstanding leading-role performance in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Rob Donohoe has performed in other Dramaworks productions as well but this is his first breakout and well deserved leading role.
|Rob Donohoe and Paul Tei|
David Nail, another new face at Dramaworks, plays his brother, Bradley -- a difficult role because Bradley is not only immersed in a seething ugly anger, bullying anyone he can, but he is also physically non- functional, having cut off his leg with a chain saw, his artificial leg passed around like a hot potato, immobilizing him in the third act to the point of his having to drag his body around the stage like an injured reptile, the leg always just out of his reach. Until that point he is the most menacing of the characters in the play, one who the audience fears may commit some unspeakable act.
They once had another brother, Ansel, who died in a motel room on his honeymoon. Halie has idealized Ansel as their imaginary savior, if he had only lived. His greatness (to her) knows no bounds. And according to Halie, he was the only real man in the family, something that cuts deeply into Dodge, Tilden, and Bradley:
HALIE: Ansel would've stopped him [Speaking of Dodge]. Ansel would've stopped him from telling these lies. He was a hero. A man. A whole man. What's happened to the men of this family! Where are the men!
Indeed, where are the men?
Halie, however, is the quintessential hypocrite, trying to keep up the illusion of propriety, with the help (and perhaps more than that) of spindly Father Dewis, so convincingly played by Dan Leonard -- while keeping Dodge in check with the pretense of concern on the one hand, but constant criticism on the other. Everyone else is to blame, even the “Catholics” like the one who married Ansel. Angie Radosh is the consummate actress, well known to Dramaworks devotees. She carries a Blanche DuBois quality of imposing her own fantasy as reality. She has brushed aside that reality to imagine what might have been, constantly fantasizing about Ansel (who no doubt would have turned out to be just like the other men in the family):
|David Nail and Olivia Gilliatt|
Shelly is played by a rising young actress, New York based, the striking Olivia Gilliatt. She is like a ray of sunshine in the play, a sign of hopefulness. She has been duped coming along with Vince for this visit, and yet as the only authentic character in the play, cautions Vince about leaving her alone in the house, even for a moment:
SHELLY: I don't want to stay here in this house. I thought it was going to be turkey dinners and apple pie and all that kind of stuff….I just as soon not be here myself. I just as soon be a thousand miles from here. I’d rather be anywhere but here. You're the one who wants to stay. So I’ll stay and I'll cut the carrots. And I'll cook the carrots. And I'll do whatever I have to do to survive. Just to make it through this.
Indeed, Shelly is a survivor.
As the tension mounts she has the temerity of confronting Dodge after seeing family photographs hanging upstairs, the clear juxtaposition of the idealized life of the past to the despair of the present:
SHELLY: You never look at the pictures up there?
DODGE: What pictures?
SHELLEY: Your whole life’s up there hanging on the wall. Somebody who looks just like you. Somebody who looks just like you used to look.
DODGE: That isn’t me. This is me. Right here. This is it. The whole shootin’ match, sittin’ right in front of you.
SHELLEY: So the past never happened as far as you're concerned?
DODGE: The past. Jesus Christ. The past. What do you know about the past?....
SHELLY: There's a picture of a farm. A big farm. A bull. Wheat. Corn.
SHELLY: All the kids are standing out in the corn. They're all waving these big straw hats. One of them doesn't have a hat.
DODGE: Which one is that?
SHELLY: There's a baby. A baby in a woman's arms. The same woman with red hair. She looks lost standing out there. Like she doesn't know how she got there.
DODGE: She knows! I told her one hundred times it wasn't gonna be the city! I gave her plenty a’ warning!
SHELLY: She's looking down at the baby like it was somebody else's. Like it didn't belong to her.
DODGE: That's about enough out of you. You got some funny ideas. Some damn funny ideas. You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring? You never seen a bitch eat her puppies? Where are you from anyway?
But Shelley sees the truth clearly:
DEWIS: There's nothing to be afraid of. These are all good people. All righteous people
SHELLY: I'm not afraid.
DEWIS: But this isn't your house. You have to have some respect.
SHELLY: You're the strangers here, not me.
HALIE: This is gone far enough!
DEWIS: Halie, please let me handle this.
SHELLY: Don't come near me! Don’t anyone come near me. I don't need any words from you. I'm not threatening anybody. I don't even know what I'm doing here. You all say you don't remember Vince, okay, maybe you don't. But maybe it's Vince that's crazy maybe he's made his whole family thing up. I don't even care anymore. I was just coming along for the ride. I thought it would be a nice gesture. Besides I was curious. He made all of you sound familiar to me. Every one of you. For every name I had an image. Every time he’d tell me a name I’d see the person. In fact, each of you was so clear in my mind that I actually believe it was you. I really believed when I walk through that door that the people who lived here would turn out to be the same people in my imagination. But I don't recognize any of you. Not one. Not even the slightest resemblance.
DEWIS: Well you can hardly blame others for not fulfilling your hallucination.
As she makes her escape, leaving Vince and the rest of the family behind, she states the central theme in the play:
SHELLY: Don't you usually settle your affairs in private. Don't you usually take them out in the dark out in the back?….. I know you've got a secret. You've all got a secret. It's so secret in fact, you're all convinced it never happened.
Although the title of the play is indicative of the ending, I will not go into details so they can unfold before you as they did before me, sitting on the edge of my seat. Note the short, staccato sentences, especially the monologues from some of the quotations I used. This moves the play along to a certain beat, almost like music.
Dramaworks veteran Resident Director, J. Barry Lewis, carefully balances the dramatic tension with the abundant black humor (yes, there is laughter in this play). There is not one dull moment, but only moments of anxious expectations. A deft hand is in command of a thoroughly professional group of actors and technicians.
The scenic design by Jeff Modereger captures the dilapidated farmhouse, so symbolic of the interior lives of its residents and the costume designs by Leslye Menshouse portray the characters in all their sordidness – except for the women, Halie, the belle of the ball, and Shelly, the sexy young woman who helps to stir up the lives of the family. I liked the “otherworldly” sound design during scene changes by Richard Szczublewski that captured the surrealistic nature of the play. Lighting Design is by Kirk Bookman, his first effort for Dramaworks although a veteran (the lighting of the fantastic New York Philharmonic version of the Sondheim’s Company with Neil Patrick Harris was managed by him), is “spot on” in this production, capturing the somber mood of the play’s content while illuminating the focal points and providing lightening during the outside rainstorm of the first two acts.
Buried Child may be one of the most unsettling but deeply satisfying plays you’ll see in South Florida this season.