Digging Deep: Buried Child Offers a View of True Theatrical Freedom
By Dan Callahan
Ed Harris and Paul Sparks photo by Monique Carboni
The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is one of several major plays he wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it seemed to reach its full potential in the revival that originated at Steppenwolf in Chicago and played on Broadway in 1996. It is a play that overflows with rich detail and intuitive invention, and it is a dream script for actors, a tragic drama but also a farce; the drama and the farce need to be played full out so that they strengthen each other and work together. Buried Child can be hilariously funny if handled correctly, one solid laugh coming after another, and yet it is also one of the saddest of family plays. Shepard utilizes elements from the theatre of the absurd, from Beckett and Ionesco, and when he really gets going he hits so many targets at once that the result is overwhelming.
This new revival, produced by the New Group at the Signature Theatre space, is a worthy introduction for those who might not be familiar with the play. Ed Harris works hard and valiantly as the physically ill patriarch Dodge, who is unable to move from his couch center stage, but at a spry 65 Harris feels too young for this part. Dodge needs to be an old codger and a man consumed by the need for liquor, and Harris can only scratch the surface of his sickness and his need. As Dodge’s religious wife Halie, Harris’s real-life wife Amy Madigan has trouble at first with this woman’s managing talkativeness, but in the second half of the play she catches the farcical elements best of anyone else in the cast, playing up Halie’s ludicrous propriety in the face of events that cannot make sense to her.
Dodge and Halie are cursed by sons who have let them down, one of them by dying young and two others, Tilden (Paul Sparks) and Bradley (Rich Sommer), who are wrecks of what they once were. (Tilden is not right in the head, and Bradley somehow lost a leg in a chainsaw accident.) Into this mess of a family comes Tilden’s son Vince (Nat Wolff) and his casual girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga). Dodge cannot recall Vince and neither can Tilden, which unsettles and then enrages Vince, and Shelly is an outsider who tries to “survive,” as she puts it, and make herself at home. Rules and roles break down into chaos, until finally the Big Family Secret is revealed, and it turns out to be a very ugly one.
This Buried Child works best toward the end when most of the cast is on stage sparking each other, and it tends to go dead in one or two-person scenes. The actors haven’t yet been able to go deep with this play and to unlock all of its assets and qualities, but this is such a first-rate piece of material that even in a half-realized state it still manages to unfold and ensnare us. Whatever Shepard was doing or feeling as he wrote this play, he was truly in some zone that allowed him total freedom, and that heady theatrical freedom is worth experiencing however we can get it.