Before I begin this review, I’d like to share a bit of my personal experience to frame my viewing of this show. I was born in Indiana, in the southern part of the state, then moved north when my dad quit his job and started grad school. My mom and I spent two years living in trailer on a lake in rural Indiana that had once belonged to my paternal grandparents while my dad attended school at Ball State. As my mother drove me to school every day in Warsaw (which was about a twenty minute drive), I would see abandoned houses in the overgrown fields, begin to decay and run into ruin. I always wondered what had happened there and why there were abandoned, sometimes creating stories to make answers of my own.
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child feels like one of those answers in the most nightmarish of possibilities. Set in rural Illinois in an old farm house where the fields have long since gone fallow, Dodge (Terry Hempleman) is confined to a couch in the sitting room, suffering from some unknown illness and watching baseball while upstairs, his wife Halie (Barbra Berlovitz) prattles on about the weather, Dodge’s health, and a son of theirs who had died. Leaving to talk to their church pastor about how to commemorate their son, Halie leaves Dodge in the care of his two sons, Tilden (Brian Goranson) and Bradley (Paul de Cordova). Tilden, who previously lived in New Mexico, had returned after running into some “very bad trouble” and is now living with his parents, sneaking outside to enjoy the weather and bring back vegetables that seem to mysteriously be growing in the field. Bradley, eerie and bully-ish, arrives to cut his father’s hair while he is asleep, shaving his head entirely. The brothers hate each other for unknown reasons and Dodge insults them and doubts their legitimacy as his sons. While he is sleeping and the brothers are gone, Tilden’s sone Vince (Matthew Englund) and his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Calvert) stop by the farmhouse. They are on their way to New Mexico to visit Tilden, believing him to still be there, and Vince is convinced he should stop by the old farmhouse, reconnect with his grandparents, and celebrate the old times. But he returns to far different situation where no one knows who he is and seems lost in a world that is void of reason and disconnected from anything that Shelly or Vince can understand. By the time Halie returns with Father Dewis (Leif Jurgensen), confusion is rampant, Vince has disappeared, and Dodge is on the brink of sharing a terrible secret that reveals what’s really out in the cornfield and the true darkness simmering under the surface of what once appeared to be a “Rockwell painting” family.
Having seen Pro Rata’s A Lie of a Mind (another Shepard play) last fall, I was at least somewhat prepared for the issues of memory, cyclical dialogue, and dislikable characters that I was likely to encounter (and also continually ask, “Sam Shepard, are you okay, man?”). But it still can’t take the edge off of the environment that is created by Shepard’s words. The frustration that is felt by Dodge’s curmudgeonly attitude, Halie’s lack of connection with the present (depicted by her first large conversation being delivered entirely offstage, her constant misremembering of her deceased son, and her lack of acknowledgement that Tilden is even in the room), and Vince’s refusal to admit that things were not as they once were adds a high level of tension and dramatic irony. Combine that with Shelly’s feeling of being utterly out of place while also remaining the one voice that sounds somewhat reasonable, Bradley’s creepy playing with power (which becomes misogynistic when directed to Shelly), and the looming feeling that there is something very, very wrong in this house leads to what I heard one audience member describe as “unnerving… makes you feel kind of throw-uppy.”
I’m not sure I like Shepard’s writing – I’m not sure I’m supposed to – but he does what he does very well. Ruminating on how twisted patriarchy is – especially in family lines – the play works as a commentary on masculinity and paternity while playing with notions of memory and recalling the past within something that feels that, at any minute, it could spiral into a Lovecraftian horror story or a Stephen King novel. The cast does an incredible job of conveying this tension, especially in Hempleman’s delivery of dialogue that circles around and around in the same ideas. There were a few moments there seemed to be some awkwardness with props, but then again, holding onto a dozen ears of corn or long-stemmed roses is awkward. The simple, austere set (designed by Justin Spooner) wonderfully captured the run-down farm house and added to the unease. Also, being from Indiana, I was impressed with the accents by the actors and work done by dialect coach Sara Schwabe. The lower Midwest accent is unique – it’s not quite Appalachian (ie: Kentucky or Tennessee) but it’s sure got a certain twang to it.
I strongly recommend this show, but know that it isn’t your typical night at the theater. If you can handle tension that never eases up, realizing that “buried child” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and feeling like you exorcized some demons after this performance, go for for it. The moments of dark humor – and there are a lot – help ease the tension somewhat, but by the second act, you’ll be gritting your teeth, and squirming in your seat. A must-see for fans of psychological thrillers.
Buried Child is written by Sam Shepard and directed by Genevieve Bennett. It runs now through June 19th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Red Bird Theatre’s website or the Southern Theater’s website.