Fort Worth — On a fallow and previously unfertile farm in the heartland of America, the ground inexplicably springs back to life. The fields are producing again. The first time since the Dust Bowl. But this is Illinois—not a state that was affected by the devastating droughts and dust storms, so a natural explanation for the earlier barrenness and current abundance of corn and carrots is out of the question.
In his classic play with its impudently literal title, Sam Shepard delves into the mystery of the unexpected bumper crop that presages the final hours of the American Dream. Themes of dispossession, disintegration, and family dysfunction are ripe for the picking.
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre (TART) production of Shepard’s Buried Child plays the Sanders Theatre in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Directed by Karen Matheny, and assisted by Alex Krus, it is a remarkably tight production with some outstanding performances, making the fact that this is Matheny’s first directing credit all the more impressive.
Buried Child was awarded a Pulitzer in 1979 (he was previously a Pulitzer finalist for True West and Fool for Love). Nineteen years later Shepard revised the play in order to develop the grandson Vince’s role. TART is working with the revised version that also accentuates the play’s dark comedy.
Delmar H. Dolbier excels in his role as the unlikable, crotchety patriarch Dodge, who reigns over his dysfunctional family from the old plaid sofa or from the floor in front of it. It is Dodge’s humorous, sarcastic remarks, through all the coughing and gruffness, that make the play’s incest and infanticide, to name only two of its cringe-worthy aspects, palatable.
For Dodge, home is the place where things happen to you when you lay down: “Every time I lay down something happens! … They’ll steal your bottle! They’ll cut your hair! They’ll murder your children! That’s what’ll happen. They’ll eat you alive.” The “they” he is referring to is his family: his adulterous and incestuous wife Halie, his emotionally-damaged firstborn son Tilden, back from whatever happened in New Mexico, and his next oldest son Bradley, whose physical disability perfectly matches Tilden’s mental impairment.
In his often-complex stage directions, Shepard coyly describes Tilden: “Something about him is profoundly burned-out and displaced.” While most productions simply skirt around this description, in effect having Tilden appear no more than slightly touched or simply unsociable, in TART’s production, Tilden’s symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are intensified and highlighted.
Seth Johnston plays the out-of-touch Tilden with great skill. Johnston’s previous acting work in the area, especially in Michael Marc Bouchard’s Lilies and in Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, makes it easy to trust this interpretation of Tilden, which makes the scene where he buries his sleeping father in corn husks less surreal and more an organic function of his autism.
Nancy Lamb’s matriarch Halie at first comes across as a bit stiff and aloof, which may be a function of not seeing her during the first ten minutes of the play. She’s offstage upstairs watching the rain fall, insisting on knowing how the rain appears from downstairs: “You should see it coming down up here. Just coming down in sheets. Blue sheets. The bridge is pretty near flooded. What’s it like down there?”
Halie is perfectly content watching the world from her perch, where she threatens her husband that if he doesn’t respond to her, then she’ll be down in about five minutes to check if he’s having a seizure. When the character reappears in Act Three, drunk after presumably spending the night with the minister, she maintains the same level of self-righteous decorum, which gives Lamb more of an opportunity to expand in the role.
Vince and Shelly, a young couple, arrive in Act Two. Vince is the family’s estranged grandson who hasn’t been seen in six years. His nervousness about returning unannounced to the family farm quickly transforms into dismay and existential dread when nobody seems to recognize him.
The audience half expects that the couple are either newly engaged or perhaps eloping, but Dodge diagnoses them within minutes: “There’s something wrong between the two of you. Something not compatible. Like chalk and cheese.”
Nicholas Zebrun plays a plausible Vince, who is conflicted about wanting to be embraced by a family that casually rejects him as an outsider. During Act Two his lines are hurried, but when he returns in Act Three after drinking and driving all night, there’s an even more convincing gravity to his predicament. His melancholy “face in the windshield” monologue leaves the audience haunted.
Erica Maroney shines as Shelly, the only character who can boast of being an outsider. She’s also the only one who can both pull out the family’s terrible secret and also have the strength of character to leave. Maroney convinces us of Shelly’s initial naiveté while also having the skills to survive a night with Dodge, Tilden, and Bradley seemingly unscathed.
Rounding out the cast are Danny Macchietto as the hostile amputee son Bradley and Mark G. Makin as the measly weasel minister Father Dewis.
The talented Amy Shuffield Brown designed the set for TART’s production; the repeating green wallpaper design gives the space a confined, time-worn feel. The room appears lived in while at the same time rejecting any notion of homey hospitality. Hope Cox carried over those same characteristics into her first-rate costume design. Bryan S. Douglas’s low-key lighting design works well for the production, as does Alex Krus’ sound design.
For something that will surely make you feel better about your own screwed-up family while giving you plenty of chances to laugh out loud, there might not be anything that fits the bill better than TART’s engaging production of Sam Shepard’s masterwork.