A dark secret haunts a rural Illinois farmhouse where a once-proud family molders in disgrace in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Buried Child.” The play is sometimes described as a dark comedy, and its humor does serve to occasionally diffuse the almost stifling tension that pervades the play. But ultimately, “Buried Child” is a disorienting tragedy about the dissolution of the American family and the legacy of shame that causes one household to unravel and curl violently inward.
To put it mildly, this is a difficult play. Setting aside the subject matter of the titular character, the play’s tone swings wildly, its bleak realism shot through with a glimmering thread of rare magic that threatens the play’s equilibrium in nearly every scene, and its dark subject matter is often upended by bitingly funny dialogue. The Bunbury Theatre closes its season with a fantastic production that delivers on all of Shepard’s wild promises thanks to a stand-out cast and an unwavering commitment to the American gothic.
Directed by Steve Woodring, “Buried Child” runs through Sunday at the Bunbury Theatre (604 S. Third St. in the Henry Clay building). There are only four performances left in the run, and serious theater fans should not miss this production.
Depressive patriarch Dodge (Matt Orme) drinks steadily on his invalid’s couch while his shrill and imposing wife Halie (Carol Tyree Williams) issues orders from upstairs before stepping out on the town with a flirtatious priest (Dale Strange). Their helpless son Tilden (Andrew Pyle) has recently come home from New Mexico, where he committed an unnamed crime to which they refer frequently but never confront directly.
Shepard continues this pattern throughout the play, as each member of the family has mastered the pattern of distrust and secrecy as a defense against the rotten intimacy of their toxic secret. Unspoken rules and myths fabricated to deflect and cover their shame govern the family’s interactions. Questions are never fully answered and truth is a disfigured, skirted thing, palpable in its absence and distortion.
The other surviving son, Bradley (Barrett Cooper), sees himself as the agent of order, despite his barely-functioning prosthetic leg and tenuous hold on reality. When Tilden’s son Vince (Ty Leitner) pops in for a surprise visit with his girlfriend Shelly (Julane Havens), the frail reality the family has created inside the house is threatened, and a showdown with the truth is imminent.
Even in such a damaged family, Tilden carries the freshest wounds. The joy of seeing Andy Pyle on stage is that you never catch him acting—as Tilden, he carries the worst of the family’s pain in every halting movement, in each bleakly poetic mumble.
Cooper swings for the fences and scores with a frightening and grotesque portrayal of Bradley the resentful bully, who works the hardest to keep the family’s stasis intact. His volatility, which promises violence, stands in stark contrast to Pyle’s crumbling vulnerability. They are ruined men at the hands of their family, which they stubbornly cling to in the absence of any true haven.
Dodge might be the pater familias, but he’s a shell of a man, left to one-liners and the bottle and television static. Orme deftly handles all of Dodge’s corners, moving him back and forth from sardonic head of the family to desperate dependent until his moment of truth arrives at the hands of the luminous Havens, whose bravado crumbles immediately when Shelly realizes she’s in over her head with her boyfriend’s family but can’t bring herself to flee until she forces the truth, with steely tenacity, out into the daylight.
Lily Bartenstein’s beautiful set and Chuck Schmidt’s lights work seamlessly to create the haunting world inside the house, where the last vestiges of the family’s promise hang just out of sight on an upstairs wall.
Upon exiting yesterday’s matinee, I overheard a patron tell her friends that she’s a Bunbury subscriber, and not to worry, “most of their plays aren’t like this.” Perhaps not—Bunbury’s seasons feature plenty of familiar fare, like the recent production of “Gin Game” and next season’s “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Boys Next Door,” with a side helping of harmless holiday comedies. But risks like this production should be applauded and encouraged. I hope to see more difficult yet rewarding material featuring strong ensemble casts like “Buried Child” in seasons to come.