Wednesday, April 4, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Buried Child" at New Village Arts

A Peculiar "Child"

New Village Arts stages a riveting and raw revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play

By Donnie Matsuda

There’s more than just a child buried beneath the surface of Sam Shepard’s dark and disturbing masterwork, Buried Child.

There are layers and layers filled with destructive family secrets, fallout from strained relationships, and many attempts to cover up the horrific events of the past with ample amounts of pills and booze. As these layers are slowly and painfully pulled away over the course of the play’s brutish three acts, it becomes quite clear that the unnamed family at the heart of this play is as strange and as dysfunctional as they come. And as their family feuding goes far beyond mere quibbles and slights, the play unearths some shameful skeletons in the family closet and suggests that, at least for these folks, their American dream has devolved into a horrific nightmare.

Jack Missett as Dodge. Photo by Daren Scott.

One of the more critically acclaimed plays of its time, Buried Child was first presented at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 1978 and subsequently transferred to the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York, where it became the first Off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. It is considered Shepard’s greatest work and the one that launched him to national fame as a renowned playwright.

As wickedly dark as it is fiercely funny, Buried Child depicts the disappointment and disillusionment of a rural family dealing with the death of their dreams deep within the crumbling walls of their Illinois farmhouse in 1973. As young, idealistic Vince decides to visit his grandparents' house after a many years absence, he is rather shocked to find that no one recognizes him. With his go-getting girlfriend in tow, he fiercely tries to have his identity acknowledged, but he can’t seem to penetrate the steely surface of this fragmented family: his grandfather Dodge is overcome with the failure of both his farm and his family and drowns himself in a sea of whiskey and pain pills, his grandmother Halie is a basket-case on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and his father Tilden is emotionally handicapped and has regressed to shucking corn and peeling carrots as a means to pass the day.

But despite the play’s roller coaster of raw emotion and shadowy personalities, there is still an incredible amount of unexpected humor and wit. It is comedy of a sarcastic, biting nature in which we laugh out loud at the most inappropriate and preposterous of situations. And here with New Village Arts' sharp staging, every single line of Shepard's darkly delusional memory play is brilliantly acted and brutally realized.

Manny Fernandes as Tilden. Photo by Daren Scott.

At the head of it all is a mesmerizing Jack Missett as penetrating family patriarch Dodge. His spooky, skeleton-like appearance is initially quite jarring and he manages to lure the audience into his demented, drug-induced world one swig of whiskey at a time. Here, Missett doesn’t miss a beat as he delivers his character’s acerbic rants and catatonic trances all while wasting away on the old, beat up couch in the basement of the family’s dilapidated farmhouse. Meanwhile, his wife Halie (a delicate and damaged Dana Case) spends most of her time flitting about on the upper floor, reprimanding and nagging him from offstage and talking to him as if he were a child. That is, when she’s not out and about having the occasional fling with the town’s parish priest (a bright cameo appearance by John DeCarlo). Through her forced smiles and snappy tone, Case manages to convey the devastation that lies just beneath the surface of her delusional dreaming and it is both gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to watch her virtually self-destruct as the pain of her past consumes her.

The children are also well played, though they are as eccentric and as inaccessible as their parents are. Here, the rotten apples don’t fall very far from the twisted and tangled branches of this warped family tree. As eldest son Tilden, Manny Fernandes plays his character as a slow-witted mute, vaguely reminiscent of his award-winning portrayal of Lennie in NVA’s masterful “Of Mice and Men.” Fernandes gives both strength and vulnerability to this good-boy-gone-bad role and evokes an incredible amount of sympathy for the lost soul that Tilden has become. As younger son Bradley, Samuel Sherman is intimidating as the rough and tumble one-legged psychopath who perhaps most ardently struggles to keep the family’s secrets buried deep underground.

In somewhat stark contrast to the crippled and deathly family, Adam Brick as grandson Vince and Kelly Iversen as his edgy girlfriend Shelly add a breath of fresh air to an otherwise deeply scarred sanctuary. Brick is ideally cast as the lean and lanky Vince who sports his slick 70’s styles well until the third act, when his inner rage gets the better of him in ways both terrible and tragic. And Iversen is every bit his equal, adding a sense of fast-talking vivaciousness that simultaneously lifts and grounds the piece, as she unwittingly digs up the dirt that this creepy clan has worked so hard to put to rest.

Adam Brick as Vince and Kelly Iversen as Shelly. Photo by Daren Scott.

Director Lisa Berger works her macabre magic again here (her terrifically twisted work on Cygnet’s recent “A Behanding in Spokane” was to die for) and she expertly extracts uniformly fine performances from her first-rate ensemble of actors. Her chilling vision for this show evokes motifs from horror flicks of the 70’s, and overall, the haunting effect works well with the disturbing nature of this fractured family tale.

Taken together, it is not totally clear what one should take away from this terribly tragic and utterly unsettling expose of a Middle American family falling apart at the seams. If anything, perhaps Shepard’s Buried Child is a harshly cautionary tale to beware the seeds you sow, as they might just grow up to be unwanted weeds, yielding harvests of hatred and hurt for generations to come.

Things to know before you go: Buried Child plays at New Village Arts Theatre at 2787 State Street in Carlsbad through April 22, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with two 15 minute intermissions. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 2pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 433-3245 or visit

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