In "Buried Child," Sam Shepard delivers a requiem for America, land of the surreal and home of the crazed. This most adventuresome of our native playwrights may not be talking about Original Sin, but he's certainly detailing the original sins that have befouled a former Eden in rural Illinois. Beyond the white frame farmhouse that contains the evening's action, the amber waves of grain mask a dark secret. The fruited plain is rotting and the purple mountain's majesty is like a bad bruise on the landscape.
The winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, Shepard's strangely potent work was revived by Arena Stage last night in a production that catches most of its mordant humor, some of its dream-washed poetry, but less of its hypnotic force. Mostly, this revival occasions a stupendous performance by Stanley Anderson, as a 70-year-old patriarch named Dodge, a geezer and a goat, whose body is decomposing with every wheeze.
Shepard's play belongs to that quintessentially American genre, the family drama, that has always brought out the best in our playwrights -- from O'Neill to Miller to Williams. It is about a grandson, Vince (Kevin Donovan), who after a long absence returns home to find his roots and discovers that they are gnarled, indeed. It is about the heavy weight of one family's heritage. In Shepard's view, though, the family is not a cozy unit. It is a destiny from which there is no escape. Dodge may want his possessions piled high in a field and burned at his death. His legacy of madness and promises betrayed will nonetheless go on.
So why are we laughing at "Buried Child"?
On the surface of things, Shepard has certainly not given us the stuff of laughter. Dodge's wife, Halie (Halo Wines), is a harpy and a bigot, who badgers her husband from her upstairs bedroom, badgers him in the living room, badgers him on her way out the door for a frolic with the town minister. His oldest son, Tilden (Kevin Tighe), is a hulking ex-all-American fullback (or maybe quarterback; no one's quite sure), who got in "bad trouble" out in New Mexico and then beat it home, bringing with him as much guilt as his pea-sized brain could muster.
One more rung down the family ladder and you get Bradley (Christopher McHale), a rampaging bull of a man, whose favorite pastime is to shave stripes on his father's skull with an electric razor whenever the drunken Dodge dozes off on the lumpy living room sofa. The only way to disarm Bradley, in a manner of speaking, is to steal his artificial leg out from underneath him.
The characters constitute a wild and aberrant crew, and the normal reaction, I suspect, would be to dismiss them as patently outlandish, if Shepard hadn't been very clever about things. He has anticipated our very response and given voice to it on the stage.You see, Vince has brought a traveling companion with him, as he descends on his relations and tries to renew ties that were really never broken. Her name is Shelly (Christina Moore), she's out of L.A., and she has no more notion of what's going on than we do.
Wrapped in a cheap rabbit coat and perched on stiletto heels, she's just come along for the ride. But it takes her no time to realize that she's out of her element and cheek to jowl with danger. Watching her try to accommodate herself to a family tht brooks no accommodation is very funny business. She'll scrape and slice an armload of carrots, if that will buy a moment's truce. But the question coursing through her head -- the question she finally brings herself to spit out -- is precisely the one that's tantalizing us, as well; "What's happened to this family?"
Shelly, especially as she is played by the ingratiating Moore, is the one who ushers us into this nightmare, reassures us that our initial befuddlement is perfectly natural and gives Shepard the bargaining time he needs to establish the play's irrational moods. By the end, when the family's secret tumbles into the open (and Shepard's title becomes self-explanatory), we are in the realm of unadulterated surrealism.But our demands for logic have been adroitly defused beforehand.
Director Gilbert Moses is more comfortable with Shepard's grim humor than he is with the playwright's savagery, and his staging has a tendency to embroider a script that is notable for its starkness of means. The failing is curious, since Moses clearly understands the virtue of understatment and puts it to good use in a long second-act encounter between Shelly and Tilden. That scene is such a subtle orchestration of the wary and the retarded sounding each other out that one laments Moses's eagerness later on to whip up a dramatic frenzy. Shepard's words carry charge enough, but Moses sometimes takes unneeded relish in detonating them.
Caricature is periodically allowed to rear its silly head, primarily in two instances: Wines, whose performance starts shrill and eventually occupies the outer limits of stridency; and McHale, who, as the drama breaks, regresses to childhood and ends up chewing on a blanket as if he were Linus in a loony bin. The broadness of the playing is all the more noticeable given the authenticity ofAnderson, who presides over the disintegrating hearth with a rheumy petulance that seems to have been nurtured by decades of cheap whiskey and disgust. Still, for much of the going, Shepard prevails.
Tony Straiges has designed another fine set for Arena -- an empty Norman Rockwell farmhouse that emanates foreboding -- and Mary Ann Powell's costumes capture both the poverty and pretensions of this cursed brood.
Nurtured by an abundant land, they are creatures of spiritual starvation, bound together in incest and folly. In "Buried Child," you can go home again. In fact, you really never got away. Like a siren, the family calls back its own, drawing up young and old in its fetid embrace. Home is where the perverted heart is.
BURIED CHILD. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Gilbert Moses.Setting, Tony Straiges; costumes, Mary Ann Powell; lighting, William Mintzer; With Stanley Anderson, Halo Wines, Kevin Tighe, Christopher McHale, Christina Moore, Kevin Donovan, Henry Strozier. Al Arena's Kreeger Theater through May 29.