Sam Shepard’s plays are almost always a little weird. His people live in a world of their own, usually hostile and dysfunctional. And so it is with Buried Child, Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that is currently celebrating its 35th birthday at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.
The principals in this unhappy play are “a midwestern family with a very dark secret.” Unfortunately, there is no mystery about it, as Shepard’s title tells the story.
Moreover, the family has been described as “like a Norman Rockwell cover.” Not hardly. Rockwell didn’t paint covers in which the father is a slovenly, combative drunk, the mother is a ditzy non-stop “conversationalist”, and of their two sons, one is an angry, abusive bully and the other is fearful and loony.
This enchanting foursome talks trivia throughout, even when dealing with the arrival of a grandson whom nobody recognizes.
Leon Russom plays Dodge, the father of the family, who spends much of the play asleep on the couch. Jacque Lynn Colton as Halie, his wife, is the perfect replica of Edith (“Dingbat”) Bunker, squeaky voice and all. Cris D’Annunzio plays Bradley, the older of the two brothers, with a permanent frown, a limp, and one-and-a-half legs. And the other brother, Tilden, (David Fraioli) has a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights stare. It is extremely difficult to imagine him ever having summoned the gumption to father a son, Vince (Zachary Mooren), the visiting grandson.
Vince has brought along his girlfriend Shelly (Tonya Cornelisse) who wants to leave immediately after she sees the dilapidated “family homestead” and the dilapidated family that inhabits it.
Meanwhile, Tilden keeps coming in through the back door, first with an armload of fresh corn and then again with carrots, which he claims to have picked from “the fields behind the house.” Which perplexes both his parents, since it has been 35 years since anyone planted or tended those once-productive fields. (Presumably, this vignette reflects Shepard’s view of the indifference and negligence of American families as they relinquish the American Dream.)
Shelly is tasked with peeling the carrots while making angry faces to emphasize her cynical remarks. She also has a scene where she is assaulted by Bradley and another in which she approaches Dodge seductively, crawling on her hands and knees, and then snuggles up to him, laying her head on his shoulder. If she is anticipating that he will protect her from his oldest son, she is certainly misjudging both his character and his capabilities.
At any rate, that potential threat never materializes, and the play moves on to the unfolding of its “dark secret.”
Bryan Rasmussen directed Buried Child with a uniformly outstanding cast, but the play was three hours long with two intermissions in which the crew only swept the floor. Surely the junk on the floor could have been dispatched more expeditiously than removing the entire audience twice.
Sam Shepard, in addition to being a prolific playwright (nearly 50 plays), is an actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff in 1983), director, and author.
As a young man he was influenced by Samuel Beckett, jazz, and abstract expressionism, according to Wikipedia. Which may explain why his plays are so abstruse. They go off on tangents, include symbolism, and have themes that are filled with moral equivocation.
Shepard’s plays seem to proclaim, “This is what I have to say. Make of it what you will.” And don’t be put off by the lethargic pacing.
Buried Child will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through October 11th at The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Call 818-990-2324 for tickets.
Photo: (seated) Leon Russom, David Fraioli, Cris D’Annunzio
(standing) Jacque Lynn Colton, Zachary Mooren, Tonya Cornelisse, Grant Smith
Photo by Nico Sabenorio