A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The non-functioning Illinois farm setting enabled Shepard to imbue the story of a family secret that refuses to remain buried with apt mythical imagery like a mysterious abundance of corn and carrots in the long fallow backyard. But while a play reflecting the 1970s' focus on the crumbling farm belt economy may seem dated in light of the current nationwide spread of disappointed, discombobulated American dreamers, Buried Child is still a gripping gothic tale — a demanding theatrical experience since it leaves the audience to figure out its many ambiguities. And, given the right cast, especially for the actor playing the family patriarch, it's also remarkably funny. The humor differs from that in one-liner stuffed comedies in that it pops here and there, often with visual touches and sounds rather than words.
With Ed Harris as Dodge the embittered, alcoholic and probably dying head of Shepard's gloomy household, the New Group's revival captures both the humor and the gothic horror of the gradually unburied secret. Harris is a fierce, seething central presence throughout. That's not to say that the other cast members don't also contribute mightily to enriching the eerie family portrait. As the foreshadowing title indicates, it's a portrait of a family whose stability is poisoned by a trauma involving a dead child.
Derek McLane has created a spot-on comfortable but depressing set with the couch from which Harris never rises center stage. That couch potato role begins even as the audience arrives at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater (rented by the New Group NOT a Signature production). In the opening scene Dodge's wife Halie (Amy Madigan, his wife off as well as on stage) is a highly verbal but unseen presence. As she chatters away from upstairs, we see Dodge smoking even as he's coughing like mad and sneaking drinks from a bottle hidden beneath a couch pillow. While Halie expresses concern about Dodge taking his medicine, there's no hiding the fact that here's a couple who haven't been close for years. Their odd long-distance interchange covers enough ground to fill us in about some family history.
When Halie does appear she's dressed in black from head to toe (one of Susan Hilferty's several allusive costumes) to arrange with the local minister for a tribute to long dead son Ansel. We know that Ansel was apparently her pride and joy and also that Dodge apparently has good reason to suspect that she's got more business with the minister than that tribute.
While Halie doesn't reappear until the final act (all three of which director Scott Elliott has expertly and smoothly conflated into an uninterrupted two hours), Dodge is not alone. Halie has left him in the care of his eldest living son Tilden (Paul Sparks who's been missed by theater audiences during his long stints on TV and in the Netflix hit House of Cards). This once promising athlete is clearly something of an emotional basket case (yes, that's got something to do with that buried child). The grumpy Dodge is hardly pleased that Tilden has returned to the farm after a disastrous attempt at independent living in Mexico; yet he want Tilden to protect him from another son, the physically crippled, psychopathic Bradley (Rich Sommer — no relative of mine).
Tilden can't prevent Bradley to once again give in to his compulsion to viciously shave his father's head, as if that could undo his accidentally slicing off his own leg with a chainsaw. However, it's Tilden who discovers the backyard's sudden and mysterious re-blossoming with a rich harvest of corn and other vegetables. The way Tilden systematically shuck that corn, scattering the husks all over the living room floor is a also a metaphor for the messy family dynamic.
The surreal aura of madness and Bradley's psychopathy escalate with the unexpected arrival of Vince (Nat Wolff) with his girl friend Shelly (an impressive stage debut by Taissa Farmiga). Seems Vince is Tilden's son and was planning to visit him in Mexico. His stopover to reconnect with Grandma and Grandpa after a six-year absence naturally makes the trip to Mexico unnecessary.
As for Shelly, it doesn't take long for her to rethink her first impression of the family homestead as "so American . . like a Norman Rockwell cover or something." After all there's something decidedly weird about the fact that no one seems to recognize Vince. Her turnaround is exacerbated after Vince goes off to buy a bottle of booze for Dodge andd she's subjected to a stomach turning, figurative rape by Bradley.
Still , Shelly doesn't run off. Instead she becomes our stand-in investigator into what's really going on here. A night spent upstairs in Halie's room and studying her collection of family photographs help her to fit some of pieces into the puzzle. But Shelly isn't a detective in a cozy mystery who neatly restores order with clarifying explanations. Instead, the long festering instability is ratcheted up into real mayhem — first when Halie returns (now a youthful looking blonde in a bright yellow dress and with a bouquet of yellow roses) with Father Dewis (larry Pine) . . .then with Dodge opening up to Shelly about the big secret. . .and finally with Vince's drunken return. And while a lot of questions are answered, much remains ambiguous and open to discussion.
Though Shepard rewrote the play in 1996 to intensify its humor, he never changed its raggedy often mystifying dramaturgy. And while he's been in New York to do a bit of fine tuning, he and the New Group team have kept all the loose ends and symbolism bracingly open to interpretation. Apparently enough people are eager to tackle all those loose and symbols, since the original closing date has just been extended by a month, to April 3rd.