Dodge, the crusty patriarch of the seriously screwy clan Sam Shepard dissects in his 1978 Pulitzer prize winner, "Buried Child," eyes his complaining wife, Halie. "My flesh and blood is out there in the back yard," he intones, and she falls ominously silent.
The audience, which has been chuckling at the clan's antics, falls silent, too. What the hell is out there under the ground?
Shepard's play is a wild farce that depicts the American family as a tribe of troglodytes. Ward and June Cleaver need not apply. This particular family occupies an isolated Illinois house with a big back yard that sprouts mysterious crops. The father and mother have three, possibly four, sons; maybe a grandson, too (in "Buried Child" much is in doubt). The father is a whiskey soaked curmudgeon who chain-smokes on the shabby sofa he rarely leaves, while his wife nags him about his sons, his booze, his pills. In act one she heads out into the rain. To meet a lover?
The sons are a disaster. Tilden is a dazed, muddy hulk who traded his chance at football stardom for a stint in jail for unnamed crimes. Bradley is a sadistic loser with an artificial leg, who shaves his father's head out of spite. A third son burned to death long ago, and if there's a fourth son, he may be rotting in the back yard.
The play takes off when a young man named Vince shows up. He claims to be Tilden's son, but both Tilden and Dodge refuse to recognize him.
How’s that for family? Vince has brought along his girlfriend, Shelley, and when she giggles that the house reminds her of Norman Rockwell, we snort, because there’s not one coy Rockwell piety in sight. Instead the play turns nastier, weirder. Bradley forces his fingers into Shelley's unwilling mouth, and she retaliates by swiping his artificial leg. Meanwhile Tilden doggedly harvests that back yard, lugging in a pile of fresh corn in act one, an armful of carrots in act two, and a tiny skeleton in act three.
Did that buried child have to be so literal? The play's concluding moments may explain too much, but even so this Shepard classic is strong stuff, both funny and upsetting. It doesn't make traditional sense, but what really gets under your skin is that sad, sick family. We meet it late in its cycle, drained of hope but still ticking, like an engine that once did meaningful work but keeps going long after its purpose has been lost. Scarily, it thrives on failure, like some super weed that's learned to feed on radioactive soil; and at the conclusion, when the dying patriarch passes on his legacy, we're chilled. Is there no end? Will desperation and denial keep this family alive?
American Conservatory Theater gives Shepard's black farce a stinging production, beginning with Neil Patel's stark, window-screened set in shades of gray, James F. Ingalls' subtle lighting, and sound man Garth Hemphill's softly drumming rain. Meg Neville's costumes define blighted lives, and Director Les Waters balances the play's comedy and horror on a sharp knife-edge.
Among the performances, top credit goes to John Seitz's Dodge, whose canny provocations are wryly hilarious. Marco Barricelli makes the hulking Tilden both sad and scary. Robert Parsons reveals Bradley's viciousness and cowardice. Neil Hopkins spryly transforms Vince from a beleaguered boy to a lost family loony. Frances Lee McCain plays the motor-mouthed mother to nagging perfection, Rene Augesen is the skittish girl friend, Steven
Anthony Jones is a mealy-mouthed parson.
Like a collision between Eugene O’Neill and Eugene Ioneso, or a run-in between Willy Loman and Franz Kafka, "Buried Child" gives the dysfunctional family a surreal twist, but its central truth is as real as a traffic accident: family ties can be strong enough to strangle you.