‘Buried Child’ draws on chilling family secrets via Shepard

By Liz Keill

MADISON, NJ – The dysfunctional family, with its dark, disturbing secrets, is at the heart of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.”  The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents a taut, insightful production, under the direction of Paul Mullin.

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The actors live in their roles as though they’ve always been in this pent-up, claustrophobic world.  Despite the bizarre setup, there are moments of humor, especially in Act I.

Sherman Howard is the Grandfather, Dodge, who sips whiskey when his wife isn’t looking and manages to while away the time doing nothing.  Yet Dodge comes to life, especially when the attractive Shelly arrives. Late in the play he goes on a tear about what he’ll leave to whom in his will. He’s very much the pivotal character in this hardscrabble group.

Their son, Tilden, has returned from New Mexico and obviously has some mental condition that caused him trouble while living in the southwest.  The setting is a bleak farmhouse in Illinois, where Tilden (Anthony Marble) insists he has found ears of corn growing in the backyard.  As proof, he sits in the living room, shucking corn.  Marble as Tilden intimately conveys the lost, confused man he has become, despite his years of high school glory on the football field.

We first hear Halie, Dodge’s wife, calling from upstairs as she prepares to go to church. When we finally see her, she seems to be a proper fundamentalist Christian who is devoted to good works.  Carol Halstead as Halie is sharp and critical, doing her best to keep everyone in their place.

Once she leaves the house, their son Bradley (Roger Clark) comes by and manages to cut Dodge’s hair while he’s sleeping.  Bradley cares more about his wooden leg than he does for the people around him.

 As the scene shifts, grandson Vince arrives with his girlfriend Shelly. Vince (Paul Cooper) can’t understand why no one recognizes him and Shelly (Andrea Morales) can’t make sense of the family dynamic. She said her vision was an apple pie homestead, not the bickering in-fighting that she observes.

 Morales as Shelly is especially outstanding in her straight-forward effort to understand this family and tries to find some link to humanity before she gives up in despair. Late in the play, Father Dewis appears. Michael Dale as the minister is obviously smitten with Halie. She has gone through an overnight change, appearing to have spent the night drinking with the minister. But Dewis is befuddled by the family dynamic; as he says, he just stopped by for a cup of tea.

Behind all the rhetoric and, at times, humorous dialogue is the subject of the buried child. We gradually learn the disturbing truth about the child’s birth and death. 

The worn living room set is designed by Michael Schweikardt, with costumes by Andrea Hood and lighting by Tony Galaska. The contrasts of pouring rain and breaking sunshine presumably lift the mood, but the darkness of these lives seems to stay.

This was one of Shepard’s early plays, the third in a trilogy that includes “Curse of the Starving Class” and “True West.”  You can see the mark of the genius in his writing with a certain poetic charge and believable characters.

“Buried Child” continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University in Madison, through Oct. 7 For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakesepareNJ.org.