The unbearable horror of being
Sam Shepard is not every playgoer’s cup of tea – or to use a more likely image from his works, nip of rotgut, snarl of anger, or betrayal of the heart. All those possibilities and more pepper his “Buried Child,” now playing in a fluent and formidable Ironweed Productions mounting at The Santa Fe Playhouse.
Shepard is tricky and this play is no exception, full of trouble and danger fueled by repression. The characters are constantly pushed to the point of shrieked confession, then kept from voicing it by a conspiracy of silence that’s almost gene-deep. All of us know people like that, twisting in the wind of their own and others’ guilt, yet unable to articulate. That is, if we’re lucky enough not to be one of them ourselves …
No, the real thorn in the shoe Shepard has cobbled for us is how insidiously and gradually he reveals how awful things are beneath the apparently comic surface, and how much worse they’re going to get. The truth sneaks up on us – or should I say, is sneaked up on us – so subtly that when malice and fear finally crest right before the end of Act I, we’re left blinking and gasping.
It’s as if we had entered a world built on a Middle-America fairy tale, only to find ourselves grappling with a reality that combines the most disturbing human relationships in “Look Homeward, Angel,” a sudden sally of creepiness reminiscent of the insane Mrs. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” and an “Alice in Wonderland” landscape where even the floors and flowers have teeth. This is not a happy play.
Too much discussion of “Child’s” situations could result in spoilers, so let me give as simple a plot description as possible. Dodge is an old coot who hangs around the family’s Illinois farmhouse, apparently able only to move between his beloved sofa (with a bottle of booze providently tucked under the cushions) and presumably the bathroom. His wife, Halie, chatters mindlessly at him from her room upstairs, then trots off to spend time with Father Dewis, her comme-çi comme-ça religious advisor.
Their son Tilden is an ominous and generally quiet presence in the manse, but projects the aura of crawling, not even walking, wounded. Another brother, Bradley, appears to be a loudmouth lout as well as missing a leg.
Into this stew come Vince, Tilden’s adult son, who – not knowing when he’s well-off – is eager to reconnect with the family he hasn’t seen for years, and his wacky but good-hearted girlfriend, Shelly. And then the fun really begins.
The April 4 performance offered a generally satisfying and certainly cathartic experience. Director Mona Malec did far more than coordinate the on-and-off-stage traffic: she helped the actors bring Shepard’s underlying angst and anguish to the surface while not seeming either actor-y or asinine – a trap easy enough to fall into, with Shepard’s grinning-through-blood sense of humor peeping out of the dialog at every moment. Only in the latter half of Act II did the creative tension flag, and only then for a minute; but it was enough to lessen the Iron Maiden-like grasp of the play’s momentum to the point that it was hard for the cast to recapture it. Some of that may be due to Shepard, of course: the last 20 minutes of the play are an extended denouement, even as the opening part of the play is a gradual rise to catharsis.
The ensemble performance was excellent, as were most of the individual readings. Larry Glaister’s pitiful yet potent Dodge was a paterfamilias of monsters masquerading as down-home townies. Kat Sawyer’s Halie looked and acted the part well but was a bit too vocally understated for the stage, perhaps due to her extensive TV and movie experience, where understatement carries better than in the theater.
Scott Harrison’s Tilden was shiveringly creepy: He looked fine on the outside, but clearly his brain and spirit had been mashed around to the point where he had one foot in the vegetable patch and one on Mars. Quinn Mander’s Bradley convincingly alternated between hayseed humor and wicked implication, while Matt Sanford’s hopeful and well-projected Vince soon found himself falling back into the acid genetic soup that defined his relatives.
Kate Kita’s clever, cautious and emotionally capable Shelly and Elias Gallegos’s hapless and hypocritical Father Dewis ably completed the cast. The shabby-looking, sickly-lit production values were perfect in context.
“Buried Child” continues through April 14. Call 988-4262 for tickets, or visit santafeplayhouse.org.