Review: Buried Child by Sam Shepard

Here is an evening worth driving a few hours for. It is dramatic yet funny, has a significant central theme and some outstanding performances and technical work; and in my books, that is a great combination.

This is an intricate play with deliciously complex characters, situations and themes; and Shepard doesn’t insult our intelligence by resolving everything with an explanatory ending. I really got the ancillary benefits that I always hope for: an intense discussion at intermission and an after-play debate in the lobby and on the hour-and-a-half drive home.

The script has an interesting history: Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1979 (a first for an off-Broadway production), but when it was revived by Steppenwolfe Productions in Chicago in 1996, he made major revisions to the script. He has since permitted sale and reading of the original script, but forbidden performance of it.

As NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton (who also directed this production) said in his before-curtain talk, it is appropriate for Canadians to be producing and watching this dissection of the American dream precisely when Americans are doing just that. Shepard looks at the difference between the America that Americans dream they have (as depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings) with the America that exists in reality.

The result is somewhat surreal.

It wouldn’t be fair to tell the outcome of the action, although any discussion of the play has to touch on the themes. We have a fairly simple initiating action: the grandson drops in to the family farm after a long absence, bringing his girlfriend. Having listened to his romantic memories of the farm, she expects the American dream, complete with hot apple pie. The reception is anything but: they can’t remember him; she has to adjust to verbal assault by everyone, she is deserted by her boyfriend, and has to deal with this. The family is dysfunctional in the extreme; of course, there is a dangerous secret that is tearing them apart.

The action takes place in a farmhouse, represented by a huge barn of a room with spaced horizontal wooden slats for walls. This depiction is effective both in allowing actions on the other side of the walls to show through, and in depicting the transitory nature of what we take to be permanent: the old family home—the old farm appears to be either falling apart or stalled in construction. The stripes would be what you would see if you were lying down on your side: a sense of a picket fence or prison stripes—take your choice. The lathe tells us this house is incomplete. Through the walls comes the hauntingly effective soundscape: alternating fertile nature (cicadas, birds), thunder storms and ominous threatening bass sounds that appropriately lie under and over everything like the sound track in film-noir. The lights could be harsh lights probing a prison cell; they focus the action, sometimes narrowly, sometimes broadening to macro, to keep us looking where we have to just as a magician distracts you by slight of hand.

The play opens with David Fox as Dodge, lying on a couch, solo onstage, responding to what is essentially an offstage monologue by Halie, his wife, played by Clare Coulter. Quickly, with an adroit blend of realism and symbolism, Shepard establishes the ironic humour and the divisions between these two.

Fox, as pathetic, terrible old Dodge, is mesmerizing, magnetic and wonderful, moving from pathos to one-liner to insult to soft-expressed drama at the twitch of an eyelid. He knows the value of minimizing; immobile, lying on the floor, barely whispering, he can hold the stage. This performance, Shepard’s Lear, played prone, is a tour de force for him.

Coulter, who has a wonderful stage voice and whose offstage monologues were assured and perfect, seemed to falter at times when she was on stage; I had the feeling she was a little lost, as her speech entries seemed late, especially when another actor had to hold speeches she was supposed to interrupt. This broke the rhythm of the scene and made an otherwise natural scene become stilted. Perhaps Coulter was inhibited by the stage-blocking, which often left her stalled on the huge stage with nothing to do; in fact there were several times seasoned veteran John Koensgen seemed stymied by the same problem, and delivered a rather stock clergyman. This situation was very likely caused by the immensity and emptiness of the set and the appearance that they had been given nothing to do. In a sense the script is probably more to blame than the actors, as Shepard seems much more assured with the central characters of Dodge, Shelly, Tilden and Bradley, whose actions were always focused.

Adrienne Gould, as Shelly, the girlfriend, demonstrated range and comfort: she was always in the moment, never caught with nothing to do, nothing to be. Shelly’s dramatic moment with Bradley at the end of act one was terrifying and huge because we believed her.

Randy Hughson played Tilden, the grubby, ominous and mainly incoherent denizen of the back yard who appears from time to time with goodies from the garden. Hughson could have allowed  Tilden to slide into caricature, but did not, and should not, because the character has serious and significant dramatic purpose. Hughson was able to humanize the inarticulate and establish the basis for the power of the play.

Alex Ivanovici played Bradley, the menacing amputee. Faced with having to play almost the entire second act from the couch, he was quite remarkable in his ability to be fairly agitated while hiding the non-existent leg. I was puzzled by the scene in which he crawled on the floor: there seemed to be no clear purpose to this except to provide a complex exit and to show that one bully was replacing another.

Christie Watson played Vince with an over-the-top intensity that allowed for no little or no nuance in the character, so that when he finally asserted himself, it was as a one-dimensional bully, not as a human being with whom we can sympathize. I am unable to decide whether this helps the play by showing how the caustic alienation continues, or hinders the play by reducing the issues to black and white. I must footnote this with the exception that when he delivered his monologue describing his drive when he went for the bottle, he gained control of the part and showed what he could do; but it was too late.

There were elements of this production that impressed me: the dirt Tilden tracked in from the back yard, the dirty breakdown of Tilden’s costume and makeup. Dodge’s absolute stillness in death, and his almost indistinguishable condition while asleep. Fox’s voice and facial expressions—absolutely true to the character. Gould’s ability to move from terror to confidence in an absolutely plausible manner. The mechanics of the final moment in act one, when the action and that incomprehensible sound effect left the audience with chills for the intermission. The repeated images of dropping harvested corn sheafs or flowers or something on Dodge. Dodge’s pathetic comic one-liners that Fox plunked in so inconspicuously, but with just enough timing and effect to get the laugh. I attended this play suspecting it was a “downer”, but it was not: it was an intriguing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny dissection of the underbelly of plain American folk. It made me stretch by taking me places I had not expected. Pretty fine for an evening of theatre.

The National Arts Centre English Theatre
2008-09 Season
Peter Hinton, Artistic Director

The National Arts Centre presents
An NAC English Theatre Company/ The Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre (Montreal) coproduction

January 4 – 26, NAC English Theatre
February 1 – 22, Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre

Buried Child
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Peter Hinton

Set and Costume Design by Eo Sharp
Lighting Design by Robert Thomson
Sound Design by Troy Slocum
Fight Direction by John Koensgen

The Company
Clare Coulter………………………… Halie
David Fox……………………………. Dodge
Adrienne Gould……………………….. Shelly
Randy Hughson………………………… Tilden
Alex Ivanovici……………………….. Bradley
John Koensgen………………………… Father Dewis
Christie Watson………………………. Vince

Laurie Champagne……………………..Stage Manager
Todd Bricker…………………………. Assistant Stage Manager
Véronique La Pierre M. …………….Design Assistant
Michelle Ramsay……………………… Mentored LX Design Assistant
Elif Isikozlu……………………………Assistant to the Director
Jane Gooderham……………………Voice Coach

Elif Isikozlu………………………… Assistant to the Director

Production viewed: January 17, 2009 7:30 pm NAC Theatre

Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including 20 minute internission.

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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