By Sam Shepard
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Through Oct. 7
The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
“Buried Child” keeps coming back to that: And yet.
A hulking man with one leg forces a girl he’s just met to open her mouth. “Wider.”
And he puts his hand inside.
The gesture is alarming, elliptical and strange.
“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard is full of arresting visual images, and evocative sounds of rain. The visual poetry of the play reminds us that theater is more than words. “‘Buried Child’s” logic often eludes story, but it is a play, not abstract art, though at times it feels like an installation.
Think Samuel Beckett crossed with Arthur Miller.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t humor. A man walking in with his arms full of corn, and quietly dumping them on his father, sleeping on the couch, is funny, as well as arresting.
STNJ grabs the play by its heart. The 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Shepard, who died last year, feels clear, and full of grief.
“Buried Child” goes right to the guts of what it means to be American. The program for the STNJ production uses a parody of Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting “American Gothic,” showing two farmers outside a home in Iowa. There is too much space, too little history, and putting down roots comes at a cost.
In Act One we see a strange family, one at peace with its own weirdness. Act II has “real life” intrude. And Act Three asks the audience, and the people from that real life, to choose.
The play opens with Dodge (Sherman Howard), a middle-aged man, on the couch, quietly mocking the chipper remarks of his offstage wife Halie (Carol Halstead). We hear of three grown sons: Tilden, who is not quite right in the head; Bradley, who lost a leg in a chainsaw accident; and dead Ansel, who was neither a war hero nor a basketball star but whom Halie remembers that way.
It’s easy to forget this act even exists when thinking about the play, because the main action begins in Act II, when Vince (Paul Cooper) arrives with his girlfriend Shelly (Andrea Morales).
When Shelly laughs at the Norman Rockwell-ness of the Illinois home it isn’t even a little amusing. We already know that image is just an image. Vince doesn’t know why nobody recognizes him: it has only been six years. But it makes sense spiritually.
We know what she doesn’t, that that image is just an image. We already know there is alcoholism and anger. Vince doesn’t know why nobody recognizes him: it seems absurd. It has only been six years. But it makes sense spiritually.
After Vince has gone out to buy a bottle for Dodge, Tilden reveals to Shelly that Dodge drowned a baby and buried it on the grounds. “Said he had his reasons.”). But the baby was never found.
Long before the real tragedy is revealed — incest, infanticide, Greek tragedy — you’ll have inhaled the sickly-sweet smell of decay. Here is a family, literally the heartland, that became something awful.
And yet, corn, and then carrots, are growing somehow anyway. Shepard holds out an almost mystic, tentative hope.
Director Paul Mullins, whose “What the Butler Saw” last season at STNJ was such a well-timed farce, displays delicacy and nuance with Shepard’s cowboy-poet-symbolism.
Anthony Marble’s Tilden speaks like a child: he has no subtext. He’s in a constant state of surprise.
Carol Halstead’s Halie has a warm appeal despite her delusions, betrayals and her obvious affair with Father Dewis (Michael Dale, hilariously smarmy and nervous). In part that’s because Sherman Howard’s Dodge is such a nasty drunk. Halstead brings dignity to her: her cry of “what’s happened to the men!” compels respect.
Roger Clark’s thuggish Bradley turns into a sniveling toddler when his leg is taken away (another bit of Shepard’s dark comedy). Andrea Morales’ Shelly has the called-for brattiness at the beginning that evolves into fear and compassion. And Paul Cooper’s Vince brings a yearning vulnerability to the role that makes his evolution feel inevitable.
But like any modern art, the frame matters, and at STNJ it’s framed beautifully.
Michael Schweikardt’s set includes wallpaper that has seen better days. Erik T. Lawson’s sound design and Tony Galaska’s lights contribute to the production’s poetry.
Erik T. Lawson’s sound design and Tony Galaska’s lights highlight the production’s poetry.
Long before the real tragedy is revealed — incest, infanticide, Greek tragedy — you’ll have inhaled the sickly-sweet smell of decay.
And yet, corn, and then carrots, are growing anyway.
And yet. There is a mystic, tentative hope.