Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” ― Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”
No one in Dodge’s (Ed Harris) family is interested in sloughing off the muck of their individual or collective pasts. In fact, Dodge, Halie (Amy Madigan), and their sons seem to prefer being stuck in the muck of a shared secret that has immobilized them since something went awry in the horse tank “out back” years ago. Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” enjoying a New Group revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is all about brooding over wrongdoing and wallowing in remorse and is a powerful reminder of just how difficult it is to repent, make amends, and addressing oneself to the task of behaving better next time.
There really is no “next time” for Dodge’s clan. Halie’s philandering with Father Dewis (Larry Pine) is a rehash of her last time’s lapse of judgement. Tilden (Paul Sparks), back at the homestead from New Mexico after getting into some trouble, is hell-bent on carrying things into the house from “out back,” the post-Fall east of Eden brimming with corn and carrots. Tilden’s son Vince (Nat Wolff) makes a disappointing stopover at his grandfather’s farm only to discover no one really knows who he is. Bradley (Rich Sommer) sans leg (“chopped his leg off with a chain saw”) and sans wit, wouldn’t know redemption if it slammed into him. Vince’s girlfriend Shelly, a real “pistol” in Dodge’s opinion, is only interested in the family secret. And Dodge knows he’s going to “die any second” unable to crawl out from under the disintegration of reality ever since that “dark” day at the horse tank.
Director Scott Elliott has wisely compressed the three acts of “Buried Child” into a seamless and undisturbed 110 minutes giving the unfolding of the Dodge clan’s secretive past and the pact they made to bury that past an irresistible intensity that assures whatever happened out back will not stay out back and when the inevitable happens at the play’s end, the audience will remember the play for a very long time after the curtain call. Despite uneven performances by the cast, Mr. Elliot’s staging is a successful reminder of the power of Shepard’s play and its important place in the canon of American plays.
The ensemble cast, except for Ed Harris’ compelling portrayal of Dodge, seems not yet in full connection to their characters but hopefully that familiarity will deepen and their performances will become more engaging and ring with more authenticity as time passes. It is not fully clear why this has not yet happened, so these observations are about the characters only and not the actors. Bradley’s sexually destructive energy fails to ignite in his encounter with Shelly coming off more as a fumbling dentist than a sexual pervert. Shelly and Halie fail to have the depth they need to counterpoint Dodge’s powerful presence and Halie fails to stand up to Dodge’s repartee. And Father Dewis’ cellophane man persona causes the audience to wonder what Halie could possibly have seen in him as a paramour in the making. It is compelling to note that Ansel, though never present, is as real as any character on stage.
On the other hand, Nat Wolff’s Vince and Paul Sparks’ Tilden manage to warm up to their characters though Vince’s monologue before Shelly’s departure needs to be stronger and more prophetic of what is to come thereafter. It is Ed Harris’ Dodge that carries “Buried Child from beginning to end. Watching him on stage is a sheer delight. He gives Dodge’s confession at the play’s conclusion a chilling and cathartic essence. “We couldn’t let a thing like that continue. We couldn’t allow that to grow up right in the middle of our lives. It made everything we’d accomplished look like it was nothin’. Everything was canceled out by this one mistake. This one weakness.”
Derek McLane’s scenic design is a remarkable ramshackle resemblance of the up the down staircase of the human psyche and, lighted by Peter Kaczorowski with a serene subtlety, supports Mr. Shephard’s script with a blessed integrity. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are stunningly perfect and Jeremy S. Bloom’s sound design cautiously intrudes at precisely the right moments.
This is more than the story of the decay of one Midwestern farm family caught in a matrix of lies. “Buried Child” is the haunting trope that addresses the decay of all that our nation-state claims to hold dear. The New Group has chosen to bring Sam Shepard’s play back at exactly the right time when America’s electorate begins to grapple with how to “make things better” beyond the political bickering that has prevented the nation from moving forward. Like “The Scarlet Letter,” “Buried Child” rehearses the consequences of adultery – not the simple adultery of Hester Prynne or Halie – but the unabashed adultery of individuals, corporations, and nation-states. Indeed “The Buried Child” serves as the scarlet letter emblazoned on all who stubbornly remain unrepentant. Kudos to the New Group for bringing this iconic play back home.