Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Buried Child is set in the living room of a run-down farm house in rural Illinois. The first family member we meet is Dodge, an aging alcoholic farmer drowning in disappointments and depression, who has not planted a crop in thirty years. Halie, his nagging wife, is first heard, her shrill voice prodding Dodge with questions and criticisms from her room upstairs, which establishes her even unseen as a huge weight on Dodge's morale. She maintains a fantasy that their youngest son Anson, who died under mysteriously unstated circumstances in a motel room, was actually a hero both in the military and on the basketball court.
Tilden, Dodge and Halie's oldest son, is barely communicative, as if trapped in another-worldly trance. Tilden recently returned to the family homestead after twenty years in New Mexico, where things went terribly wrong in some unstated way. Tilden first appears with an armful of corn picked from the fields, despite nothing having been planted there for decades. Middle son Bradley, who is missing one leg (the result of a chain saw accident) arrives. He has a sinister demeanor, borne out in bullying Tilden and shaving his sleeping father's head. In the midst of this brew, Vince, who is Tilden's son, arrives. He had been gone for several years, and has stopped to visit his grandparents, accompanied by his girlfriend Shelly, en route to New Mexico to visit his father.
Vince is thrilled to be back at the farm where he grew up and looks forward to a warm reunion. Of course, he soon discovers that Tilden is also back in Illinois. He also finds that neither Tilden, nor Dodge, nor Bradley recognize him, let alone acknowledge him as their son, grandson or nephew. Halie is not present, having gone to town to see their pastor Father Dewis about erecting a monument to Anson. Vince, devastated that his family has no memory of him, is determined to find out what has gone wrong. Shelly is incredibly unsettled and she wants to leave, but Vince prevails. As evening progresses and turns into morning, we learn more about the family and the shared nightmare that drove them each into their particular emotional prison.
Numerous things in Buried Child seem to make no sense. No explanation is offered as to how Vince grew up on the farm with his father if Tilden was in New Mexico for the past twenty years. Nor is anything ever said about Vince's motherwho she is, where she is, if Vince has seen her. For literal viewers such gaps in logic can sink the play. But if we give up the image of a real family, and consider a mythological perfect family that has been struck by lightning and torn asunder into jagged edged parts, we get a sense of the landscape Shepard has drawn. Things don't fit together in his universe, challenging us to question how well they ever really do. Shelly, the outsider, has the role of provocateur, pointing out how things are supposed to be, and challenging these men to conform to some recognizable form of manhood. Shepard's work is sometimes criticized as being misogynistic. Yes, Halie is an emasculating, hypocritical, self-deluded womanhardly a positive image. But the men fare no better. In addition to the malice and decrepitude of Dodge, Tilden, and Bradley we have the weak bearing of Vince and Father Dewis, a portrait of corrupt and inept authority. The entire web of this community, both male and female, is venomous. While Dodge, Tilden and Bradley treat Shelly horrendously, and Vince simply ignores her needs and belittles her insights, she is depicted as an independent and smart woman with the strength to make a moral decision for herself.
Bennet has assembled a strong cast to portray this misbegotten family. As Dodge, Terry Hempleman delivers one of the best performances of his notable career, melding his sense of irony and sharp wit with utter frustration and defeatism. When Halie chastises him by asking "Why do you enjoy making things difficult?" Dodge responds "I don't enjoy anything," and Hempleman makes the line a wisecrack and an assessment of his total decline all in one. Halie is played by Barbara Berlovitz, with a voice that sounds like she is narrating her life rather than living itdistanced from and uncomfortable putting her hands on reality. She speaks with a bit of a southern drawl, casting a notion of fragility, but Berlovitz never lets us doubt Halie's steel will.
Brian Grossman portrays the pathetic degree to which Tilden has turned himself inward, disconnected from the world and unable to deal with his own past. His character is creepy and heartbreaking in equal measure. Paul de Cordova is splendid as the lout Bradley who gleefully spews menace as he limps on his prosthetic leg, then becomes a terrified, infantile victim when the tables are turned on him. Matthew Englund fares well as Vince, arriving as the returning prodigal grandson who has cleaned up his act to rekindle the affection he recalls between himself and his grandparents, then goes into a tailspin of panic by his family's indifference to him, and in the end finds a role for himself with the disconnected dysfunction of his ancestral home. Shelly is played by Charlotte Calvert, who is utterly believable as a woman going along with her guy, against her better judgement, until she finds herself in over her head. In the small role of Father Dewis, Leif Jurgensen captures the essential impotence of the supposed moral authority wielded by the church.
Technical and design elements of this production are all on the mark. Justin Spooner has designed a simple set that makes excellent use of the Southern Theater's stark, unadorned space. Rebecca Bernstein's costumes appear well lived in by these characters, including the outfit Halie wears on her trip into town. The lighting and sound design reinforce shifts in mood and tension.
Sam Shepard is one of our nation's most revered living playwrights, yet he has many detractors who dislike his style of mythologizing dysfunction in our families and institutions. It is fair to say, then, that Buried Child is not for everyone. For those who do appreciate the wisdom and the rich vein of dark humor in Shepard's work, Buried Child is a prime example of the playwright at his best. Red Bird Theatre gives the play as fine a mounting as you are likely to see, and true to its values, shows utmost respect for the material, the skills of its highly talented cast and crew, and for the audience's capacity to absorb meaning and emotive power from this work.
Buried Child continues through June 19, 2016. It is produced by Red Bird Theatre, presented at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $24.00, students with ID - $18.00, free for Art Share members. For tickets call 612 340-0155 or go to southerntheater.org. For information on Red Bird Theatre, go to redbird-theatre.com.
Written by: Sam Shepard; Director: Genevieve Bennett; Scenic and Prop Design: Justin Spooner; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Tim Cameron; Fight Choreographer: Aaron Preusse; Dialect Coach: Sara Schwabe; Stage Manager: Rosie Alumbaugh; Assistant Stage Manager: Claudia Errickson.
Cast: Barbara Berlovitz (Halie), Charlotte Calvert (Shelly), Paul de Cordova (Bradley), Matthew Englund (Vince), Brian Goranson (Tilden), Terry Hempleman (Dodge), Leif Jurgensen (Father Dewis).