What happens when the American Dream never comes to pass? In Buried Child, a play by Sam Shepard that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979, we see the disintegration of a rural family torn apart by secrets and disappointment. Years ago, it may have seemed they had it all—fertile farmland in Illinois, three athletic sons. But the crops failed, the golden child died under mysterious circumstances, and thus began a cycle of betrayal, addiction, and loss. The current production at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates increasing discomfort as tension builds towards the reveal of an unimaginable family secret.
Directed by A Noise Within Producing Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, the action unfolds in the living room of a delapidated farmhouse. Behind the peeling wallpaper, you can tell it was once a very charming, even idyllic home, but years of neglect have turned it into a sorry sight. Dodge (Geoff Elliott), the family patriarch, is very unwell and reaching the end of his life. A raging alcoholic, he reaches for sips of whiskey between hacking coughs while trying to ignore the constant yammering of his wife, Halie (Deborah Strang). She is not over the death of their youngest son, Ansel, years ago. Her memory of him is that of the perfect young man, despite the fact that he died mysteriously in a motel room. She insists he was murdered by his new wife, but the subtext suggests that the situation was likely much more complicated than that.
Dodge and Halie’s other two sons have never emerged from Ansel’s shadow. Tilden (Michael Manuel), the oldest, has recently returned home after being banished from the state where he was living after committing a crime we never learn the details of. He has an implied mental disability and struggles with emotional comprehension. Meanwhile, Bradley (Frederick Stuart) is an aggressive and violent man who lost one of his legs in a chainsaw accident.
While this has been the depressing status quo for some time, everything is upended when Tilden’s 22-year-old son, Vince (Zach Kenney) arrives home unannounced for the first time in six years, accompanied by his girlfriend, Shelly (Angela Gulner). Vince is shocked to see the sorry state of his grandparents’ home and flabbergasted when Dodge and Tilden seem to not recognize him. Shelly, perhaps the most interesting character in the play, is the outside perspective into this bizarre situation. A worldly and outspoken young woman, she is at first understandably frightened and disturbed by the family’s unsettling behavior, but ends up making the most of a bad situation, unable to shake her fascination and desire to unearth the secret responsible for tearing the family apart. The cast is rounded out by Father Dewis (Apollo Dukakis), an unsuspecting “friend” of Halie’s who also gets wrapped up in the whole mess.
Shepard’s writing is smart, subtle and shocking all at once, embracing absurdism. The entire family has been living in a state of paralysis due to having never processed a collective trauma with far-reaching implications. One could argue it extended even to the fields, long barren (or are they?). A horrifying situation is infused with dark comedy, and Rodriguez-Elliot’s direction, combined with effective design elements, builds the tension to a crescendo. The sound design (Jeff Gardner) and lighting design (Ken Booth) work together to create an atmosphere of eerie isolation, highlighting the details of the appropriately dismal set (Sibyl Wickersheimer). The cast is very good, anchored by Elliott, whose Dodge is as feisty and quick-witted as ever despite his failing physical health. Gulner is also a delight to watch as Shelly, who has a lot of heavy-lifting to do in the story as the perspective character.
Ultimately, this is the type of story most will either love or hate. The absurd style is not for everyone, nor is the exceptionally dark humor. It can be exhausting to watch pretty terrible people dance around what will obviously be a big reveal for nearly two hours, and some moments, particularly the final scene, are hard to watch in a way that teeters on the border of challenging and gratuitous. But it is easy to see why A Noise Within chose to resurrect this story now. At the time the play premiered, rural America was struggling, and this notion of the unrealized American Dream is prevalent in our zeitgeist again today. One could even take things a step further and use this family as a cautionary tale for the consequences of neglected mental health, an issue that is unfortunately still a massive problem in 2019. It would be easier to embrace the challenging nature of the play if the secret upon which it hinges was more complicated, but instead, it is just shocking and relies on this shock to rattle the viewer, never digging deeper.
Buried Child runs at A Noise Within through November 23rd. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission. This show is running in repertory with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and the performance schedule can be found here. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.