It’s probably because Sam Shepard was an actor as well as a writer that he has such a good ear for what plays well. I have to say he’s a playwright whose works I would much prefer to see/hear than read as what seems flat on the page lifts itself into another sphere altogether when played on stage. This revival of Buried Child (originally from 1978) confirms my feelings. The production played in London for a while in 2016 but this recording is of the original Off-Broadway American cast.
The setting is a decaying farmhouse in “the boondocks” of Illinois where the inhabitants and their fields are barren, the family depicted have become completely dysfunctional and the wider context is a severe economic downturn. Dodge, the patriarch is slowly dying and props himself up with alcohol and an increasingly bitter war of words with his wife Halie. Their two grown sons Tilden and Bradley live with them; a third, Ansel, has died. Visitors in the form of grandson Vince and his girlfriend Shelly return and provide a catalyst in which recriminations fly and hidden secrets are brought to the surface – literally. It struck me that the play owes a huge debt to Pinter’s The Homecoming especially in its use of symbolism which is probably more important than the plot.
Indeed, like Pinter’s play before it, Shepard’s is full of mordantly funny and mesmerising dialogue as the various characters jockey for position as to who is to rule the roost. This is cleverly conveyed when for the first 15 minutes of the play a spiky conversation is carried on by Dodge (onstage) and Halie (offstage) which is all about things other than the actual subject matter. Older son Tilden keeps arriving with bundles of vegetables which he has harvested “out back” even though Dodge insists there is nothing there. Both he and Bradley (a probable psychopath with an actual false leg) seethe with anger about their entrapped situation and the former has been in some sort of trouble with the law and had to flee his New Mexico home.
Vince and Shelley drop by his grandparents en route to see Tilden and are unaware that he is there. [It can surely be no coincidence that the interruption comes as the couple plan to travel from Illinois to New Mexico which would be connected by the legendary street of dreams, Route 66] Ominously nobody seems to recognise Vince and when he goes off to get Dodge some whiskey, Shelley is left at the mercy of the old man and the two brothers (see what I mean about The Homecoming?)
Despite playing a semi-invalid, Ed Harris dominates the stage throughout as Dodge – a name that suggests an avoidance of responsibility. His hacking cough and world weary body language tell us all we need to know about this rural King Lear who has ceded power to others but still tries to cling on to the trappings of authority. Amy Madigan as Haile has in many senses a more difficult job as she is offstage for the first duologue and then is absent from the action for quite a while. However, in the third act she gives such a performance of blazing intensity that any thoughts of her being a minor character are instantly banished.
She has such a good rapport with Harris (they are real life partners) that I could have listened to just these two without the introduction of any other characters. However, the performances of both Paul Sparks and Rich Sommer as the older damaged brothers, constantly compared to their dead sibling and found wanting by their parents, add considerably to the gothic gloom which pervades the atmosphere.
Another very strong and controlled performance comes from Taissa Farmiga as outsider Shelly who stumbles into this backwater hellhole but still manages (just) to keep her head above water. I wasn’t quite so impressed by Nat Wolff as Vince although a key monologue in the latter part of the play was well delivered. If there were any hopes of a deliverance from family tyranny, then these are soon dispelled as the young man starts to resemble his grandfather.
I’d defy anyone not to feel the sucker punch to the gut that is provided in the closing moments of the play (no spoilers) and it certainly provided an image that is still lodged in my brain hours later. Buried Child is a superb example of a play which although it has no connection with out daily lives speaks a sort of universal truth. It is a family drama which transcends its genre and this excellent production enhances its already considerable reputation.