Playwright Sam Shepard died in the summer of 2017, and in the fall of 2017, the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton happened to present a production of his “Simpatico.” I found it, though well acted and imaginatively staged, disappointing —a deservedly obscure, messy piece of writing.
I’m happy, though, to report that New Jersey is now getting a better way to remember Shepard, via an excellent production of his devastatingly powerful “Buried Child” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
First presented in 1978, “Buried Child” was Shepard’s breakthrough, and won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a bleak statement on the state of American society, set in a drab Illinois farmhouse (the ugly wallpaper is peeling in Michael Schweikardt’s appropriately cheerless set). But the play’s colorful characters and sharp, dark humor make it more than just a grim allegory. Despite the decay, there is plenty of bristling life here.
The wounded heart and soul of the play is Dodge (Sherman Howard), who spends most of it on his couch or on the floor, sick, depressed, and desperate to cajole anyone within listening distance to get him some more alcohol, since he can’t do it himself. He’s a ball of contradictions. He’s pathetic, yet also perceptive and sharp-witted. When learning that another character is a vegetarian, he snaps, “Hitler was a vegetarian.” He may have been something of a charming rascal when he was younger, but has grown cynical and bitter.
He’s the patriarch of his monumentally dysfunctional family. The matriarch, Halie (Carol Halstead), makes no secret of her disdain for Dodge, and is so blasé about the affair she is having with a local minister, Father Dewis (Michael Dale), that she doesn’t even try to hide it. Shepard cleverly illustrates the disconnect between Dodge and Halie by having the play start with a long dialogue between them in which she’s in another room, offstage, and can’t even be seen.
The have one son, Tilden (Anthony Marble), who seems to be suffering from some sort of mental illness or brain damage — he spends the whole play in a kind of fog — and another, Bradley (Roger Clark), who has lost a leg in a chainsaw accident, and has a sadistic streak.
Joining them, at the start of the second of the play’s three acts, is Tilden’s 20-something son Vince (Paul Cooper), and his girlfriend, Shelly (Andrea Morales). Vince hasn’t seen his family in six years, and is not sure what to expect in this surprise visit. He’s taken aback by what he finds, and Shelly, who had no idea what to expect, can’t believe her eyes. She’s from Los Angeles, and a bit naïve; when she first sees the house, she says it reminds her of Norman Rockwell. How wrong that turns out to be.
Both Vince and Shelly are fish out of water here. Yet Vince feels strangely drawn to his family, and their home.
Father Dewis, on the other hand, doesn’t want anything to do with this craziness. “This is out of my domain,” he states. (Don’t look for the church to step in and make everything better, Shepard seems to be saving.)
“Something has fallen apart. This isn’t how it used to be,” Vince tells Shelly at one point. This may have been true — as a broader statement about American society — when Shepard wrote the lines in 1978. But I think many people would agree that it’s even truer now. Which makes this a perfect time to revisit “Buried Child.”
“Buried Child” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Oct. 7; visit shakespearenj.org.
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