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Buried Child

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Paul Sparks, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan
Photo by Monique Carboni

Is the weirdness real, or merely the outward manifestation of a diseased soul? Whatever the answer to this question with respects to the jolting new revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a production of The New Group, one thing is unquestionable: The eccentricity is inescapable. Whether that's a bad thing—well, that's the territory Shepard, and this production's director, Scott Elliott, are so interested in exploring, and end up doing so well.

The barrenness of both the ramshackle Midwestern house in which the play is set and the people (more or less) within it is on full display well before the play proper begins. Although Dodge (an outstanding Ed Harris) is planted on a ratty sofa and seemingly watching television, there's no question that his heart and mind are actually engaged elsewhere. So much so, in fact, that he appears almost otherworldly, and not in a good way: ostracized from the civilization we think we recognize to the point that rather than a man he resembles more an alien (at best) or a ghost (at worst). He shifts, flinches, and itches at restraints we can't see, fighting violently against an unseen enemy—spiritual inertia?—before a word of dialogue is spoken.

Once it is, we get a better idea of where he's coming from, with his wife of many years, Halie (Amy Madigan), shouting at him, unseen, from upstairs. "You know what it is, don't you?" she bleats in a deadened drawl. "It's the rain! Weather. That's it. Every time. Every time you get like this, it's the rain. No sooner does the rain start than you start." She's referring to his coughing (choking, really), at least in technical terms, but even at this early point you wouldn't be surprised if any tangible life force were to inspire an allergic reaction. Though he's barely said a word and we haven't seen her yet, it's obvious they're both sun-parched from the inside out.

Hardly better is Tilden (Paul Sparks), their grown son, who seems more wrong still. Perhaps he's not brain dead, but he's also not right—as though his essential being had been ripped out of him and the wound it left behind left to fester forever. Like an over-aged toddler, he reacts in glee to the corn he's pulled from the back yard, against all odds and common sense ("There hasn't been corn out there since about 1935!", Dodge muses), yet is unable to process what it means. Shepard has plunged us into his own quasi-modern (Buried Child premiered Off-Broadway in 1978, and appears to be set in about that year) American drawing-room drama, what a title of the classic variety might look like on the eve of the apocalypse (or even the day after).

Invading this serenity soon after are Vince (Nat Wolff) and Shelly (Taissa Farmiga). He's Tilden's son and thus Dodge's long-absent grandson, obsessed with returning to his family; she's searching for the Norman Rockwell–styled dream she's never known. Both are shocked by what transpires upon their arrival, when no one recognizes Vince, and they become embroiled within the myriad emotional struggles unfolding within the walls. Without spoiling much—and Buried Child, even after winning the Pulitzer Prize and being performed countless times over the decades (including in a Broadway revival 20 years ago), retains the ability to shock and stun—the travails and their resolutions, such as they are, are related as much to their present relationships as to the play's title.

Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan with Nat Wolff and Taissa Farmiga
Photo by Monique Carboni

Yet despite the surreal spin and typical Shepard features of the era, primarily with regard to a certain perspective of the American Dream being questioned (if not repudiated entirely), this work is potent today because of how much sense it ultimately still makes. The invisible terrors at play, which are exorcised in part by time and in part by the outsider who can reflect the family's idiosyncrasies and failings, are achingly real, the underlying problems believably debilitating. Shepard may have steeped his writing in symbolism and metaphor (the color yellow, in particular, has a chilling, transformative effect on those who come in contact with it), but beneath the skin, they're not much different than your family or anyone's. It's as this is revealed, bit by agonizing bit, that you're escorted into, and eventually enveloped in, their world, their woes, and (you hope) their redemption.

You do eventually end up there, after 100 harrowing, intermissionless minutes of watching the unraveling of the truths and lies from which they've constructed their threadbare existence. Although he could at times, most notably in the first act, sharpen up the pacing just a bit, Elliott has delivered one of his best directing jobs in years with this production. Yes, he has done a masterful job of establishing and maintaining atmosphere, which remains consistent in its innate quality even as it grows, expands, and suffocates; and his designers (Derek McLane on sets, Susan Hilferty on costumes, Jeremy S. Bloom on sound, and Peter Kaczorowski on the frequently terrifying and X-ray–probing lighting) have given it stark, arresting physical form. But more important, he has guided nearly every actor into being both an integral part of the action and unmistakable individual.

Harris is gripping in his presentation of Dodge as being eaten from within by guilt, while still trying to maintain the strong, patriarchal facade he believes will save them all. Though Dodge should have an air of the decrepit about him, Harris's innate vitality sets up an internal conflict within the man that adroitly mirrors what's occurring in the play itself. Madigan, Harris's real-life wife, matches him step for step, breaking down the shrewish mother archetype into a fascinating and moving portrait who finds the healing she needs elsewhere. Sparks's typically odd, dazed delivery at first appears too pat a fit for the burned-out Tilden, but he makes it work by showing us enough facets of that personality that we can see the tragedy that originally built it up.

Most of the other actors, including Wolff, Rich Sommer as the "other" brother Bradley, and Larry Pine as the protestant minister who is invoked only to be stymied by the spectacle he's witnessing, render their roles with great cunning, filling out the boundaries of this sun-parched landscape with spirit and skill. (In the way his Vince blithely lives by toeing the line between ardor and madness, Wolff is especially good.) Only Farmiga doesn't make the proper connections: Her screechy, monotonic take on Shelly doesn't leave the girl with much room to grow, even when her discoveries should propel her to maturity well before her time.

That's an issue only because Shelly is the linchpin of the play, the one who understands and can interpret better than anyone else the stakes—because she's seeing them completely fresh. She's learning, in the hardest way imaginable, what everyone must at one point or another: You can't go home again, and to even try is invite disaster. Farmiga's missteps aside, however, this Buried Child is anything but a disaster. It's a powerful, unsettling view of a family—and by extension a country—in decline that finds grace through its torment. Difficult, even upsetting, though it may be to watch, it's theatre that's not necessary because it's wonderful, but wonderful because it's necessary.

Buried Child
Through March 27
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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