IN "BURIED CHILD," Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Shepard envisions a decayed, dried-up and dusted-over American heartland, then imagines what is needed to make the barren fertile once more.
Full of hinted secrets, inexplicable, even shocking stage apparitions, and unearthed but unresolved mysteries, "Buried Child" receives a problematic but basically solid and thoughtful revival at Baltimore's Center Stage.
In an Illinois farmhouse, cranky invalid patriarch Dodge rules his ruined domain from the sofa, sneaking sips and terrorizing what's left of his two living sons. Tilden, a former All-America fullback, has become a childlike mental cripple, and bearlike Bradley, a bitter, prankish amputee.
Grandson Vince drops in unannounced with girlfriend Shelley after a six-year absence, but the family doesn't recognize him, and when Vince steps out to fetch Dodge a bottle, Shelley begins to unearth his family's long-buried, destructive Dark Secret. Vince returns after a night of drunken visions of his ancestors, and after a violent rampage, accepts the inevitablity of his rural heritage.
Director Michael Engler vividly handles the play's visual imagery, lulls us with the first act's light, slightly creepy comedy, and gradually builds to the surreal shocks and shifting ground of the second and third acts.
The quality of acting varies widely. Bob Burrus anchors the play with a strong performance as wily, manipulative Dodge. As Dodge's wife Halie, Mary Doyle is fine when on stage, but the actress spoils Halie's two long and rather important offstage monologues with an uninflected singsong that sounds as if she's reading off a card. Kyra Sedgewick is both sassy and vulnerable as Shelley, and Tim Ransom puts some energy into Vince, though he sounds too naive to be believable in his revelatory reappearance.
The production has a beautifully spare, bleached-out look. Hugh Landwehr's screenporch set is faithful, if somewhat too capacious, and Jim Ingalls contributes a moody lighting scheme and enhances the disturbing closing scene with some subtle effects.
The Center Stage presentation of "Buried Child" was among four American regional theater productions chosen to be filmed for archival preservation in the Billy Rose Theater Collection at Lincoln Center.
BURIED CHILD -- At Baltimore's Center Stage through May 25.