“Buried Child” Firth Chew Studio Theatre at the Spokane Civic Theatre, Friday, April 18
If you aren’t familiar with Sam Shepard as a playwright (as opposed to movie actor), “Buried Child” is an excellent place to start.
This 1978 classic, revamped by Shepard in 1995, is intense, infuriating, shocking, enigmatic and slyly funny, all at the same time.
It’s about a screwed-up, morbid, isolated American farm family with a grisly secret buried in the backyard. Yet “Buried Child” is far more entertaining than any such play has a right to be.
Under the smart direction of Willam Marlowe, it is a wicked black comedy.
Most of the humor comes from the character of Dodge, the elderly patriarch, played with fine gruffness by Dennis Redford. Imagine Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford as a white, elderly farmer, and you get the picture.
Dodge spends most of the first part of the play shouting Sanford-like lines at his wife, Halie (Malie Petersen). When Halie says that Dodge’s son Bradley is coming over to cut his hair, he barks: “You tell Bradley that if he shows up here with those clippers, I’ll separate him from his manhood.”
Dodge is dying by degrees and apparently has decided life is not worth taking seriously. When Halie asks him why he enjoys stirring things up, he replies, “I don’t enjoy anything.”
Yet somehow Dodge is the funniest, and most sympathetic, character in the entire play. This is what makes Shepard so fascinating as a playwright; his writing is quirky and unpredictable, both in plot and in character.
The main conflict soon arrives in the form of grandson Vince and his girlfriend Shelley. Vince rolls in, with trumpet case in hand, to revisit the scenes of his youth. What he finds is a family too crazy to even remember him, much less welcome him.
“Buried Child” proceeds as a kind of irascible comedy through nearly two of its three acts, but suddenly, at the end of the second act, things turn dark. Bradley (Jhon Goodwin), he of the hair clippers, shows up and proceeds to bully everyone. There may be no actor in Spokane who can be so effectively menacing as the beefy, crew-cutted Goodwin.
When he creepily inserted his fingers into the mouth of Shelley, paralyzed with fright, he injected a jolt of sheer terror into the play.
Yet, Shepard, keeping us off balance once again, opens the third act with Bradley asleep on the couch, no more dangerous than a child. Without his false leg, which stands next to the couch, Bradley has lost all power to intimidate.
The young man Vince is clearly the play’s dramatic catalyst, and in a recent interview Shepard said he revamped the play partly to put more emphasis on Vince. And he is a strong character, especially as played by Elwon Bakly.
Bakly, in black leather jacket, has an almost young Marlon Brando-like presence, or to put it in contemporary terms, a Johnny Depp or Ethan Hawke presence. He roams the stage, sweeping his black hair off his forehead, attempting to make sense of this ridiculous family situation.
His character is intense, confused, vulnerable and always watchable.
Yet Shepard has not fixed one of the main problems in the play’s structure. Vince disappears in the middle of the play to get some whiskey and doesn’t show up again until the end. This allows Bradley to do his bully act, but it seems to rob Vince of his central role in the story.
The rest of the ensemble lives up to the high standards set by the leads.
Stuart McKenzie plays the damaged son Tilden as a man whose torment makes him jumpy and bright-eyed. He’s as nervous as a cat.
Alison Letson is all breezy giddiness as the girlfriend Shelley.
And Charlie Driskel makes a good foil for Halie as her pastor-boyfriend, Father Dewis.
As for the buried child of the title, it spends most of the play as an unseen presence in the back yard. Shepard chooses not to let it remain unseen, however.
Is this merely a closing gimmick, intended to shock? Or is it a powerful dramatic statement?
It makes for good post-play debate. With Shepard, post-play debate is half the fun.
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