review: The child returns…Magic Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” is still gripping after 35 years—through October 13, 2013
Tightly held family secrets are unearthed in Magic Theatre’s revival of Buried Child, Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning odyssey about finding one’s way back home and finding one’s place in that home. The play, directed by Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco, opens Magic’s 47th season and continues its “Sheparding America” celebration of the playwright’s 70th birthday−up this November. Buried Child premiered at the Magic in 1978, during the exciting eight-year period that Sam Shepard was the theatre’s playwright-in-residence, a time when he also unveiled such classics as True West (1980) Fool for Love (1982)−productions which I, then an undergrad at UC Berkeley, attended and which deeply and viscerally impacted me. Despite winning the Pulitzer, Shepard reworked Buried Child for its 1995 Broadway revival and it’s this version that Magic currently has on stage and has extended through Sunday, October 13, 2013.
Buried Child remains a dark detective story of sorts, devised in such a manner as to enmesh the audience in the festering wound of the endlessly complex and broken American family. The 35 year-old play is as relevant as it ever was and the acting is exceptional in Magic’s revival. Special touches like the sight and sound of torrential rain and the startling crack of breaking beer bottles by sound designer Jake Rodriguez and scenic designer Andrew Boyce are elevating.
The plays opens in a ramshackle living room, with Dodge, the father and family patriarch, glued to the couch, covered with an Afghan, sneaking drinks from the bottle of booze he keeps hidden in the cushions. Rodd Gnapp, last seen in Magic’s Se Llama Cristina, again outdoes himself in this principal role, delivering a broken man with a serious case of emotional dry-rot. Unable to face the consequences of his past, Dodge lies unshaven and passive on the couch, rasping and hacking.
Upstairs, his wife Halie (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), talks at him non-stop, in a blistering unrelenting monotone, as she readies herself for church and a visit with Father Dewis (Lawrence Radecker), a priest she’s having an open affair with. This is not the first time she’s stepped outside her marriage; the dark consequences of her past infidelity have devastated the family. Instead of facing her pain, she revels in the past glories of her sons who are enshrined in old family pictures lining the walls of her bedroom. Her investment in the dream, has caused her to erect a kind of mental fortress around her memories (real and imagined) and it will take two outsiders to obliterate lay waste of them. Balthrop Cassidy is great with the unseen banter but when she appears in person, she seems to be working too hard at playing a parody of Halie rather than just being the complex piece of psychic work that is Halie. This is a noticeable contrast from the ease with which the other actors embody their characters wounds.
As two adult sons make their entrance, it becomes apparent that the dysfunction extends beyond the marriage. Tilden, the eldest, (James Wagner) who lives with his parents, seems confused and easily shaken. He lumbers around and dumps down a huge pile of fresh corn which he says he’s just picked from the field in the backyard, a field which has been fallow for years. One-legged amputee Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones), a victim of a chainsaw accident, is combative and scary. He lives close by, close enough to come over and harass his family whenever he pleases. The whole lot of them exhibit symptoms that solidly put them in DSM-IV territory for trauma, an area that has long captivated Shepard.
With the unexpected appearance of Tilden’s twenty-something year old son, Vince (Patrick Alparone), and his girlfriend Shelley (Elaina Garrity), the past rears its head. While Vince has only been gone for six years, no one will acknowledge or recognize him. He is desperate for affirmation and yet has been stripped of his identity. His solution–to run away. Patrick Alparone does a masterful job of navigating the minefield of emotions and expectations associated with coming home to what he remembers of his family and meeting up with this abominable clan. His third act transformation, his return home–to ownership of himself and the farm–is palpable. Elaina Garrity nearly steals the show with her very believable Shelley, an outsider, immune to the family dysfunction, who functions as a mirror to the audience. Shallow, disengaged and skeptical at first, the willowy young woman, ultimately proves relentless in her quest to get to the truth and unearth the secret.
Buried Child functions brilliantly on many levels while casting out psychic hooks that reel in the wounded amongst us, bringing us to confrontation with our own demons. At it heart, it is about the ways that family members withhold from each other and perpetuate more hurt as they attempt to shield themselves from the unbearable pain of having broken a moral code. There is no hero, there is no forgiveness but there are many villains and many victims. When the truth emerges, the characters, nursing their wounds, grudges and regrets, can’t bring themselves to move beyond their entrenched patterns despite the fact that reality has shifted.
Loretta Greco has revitalized the Magic Theatre since she was appointed Artistic Director in 2008. She is able to mine emotion and insight from every remark, every nagging resentment that is expressed in Shepard’s masterpiece. “For almost two decades I’ve longed to work on Buried,” said Greco. “I believe that in 1,000 years philosophers and civilians alike who are searching for meaning will still be mining the depths and Sophocles’ Oedipus, Chekov’s Three Sisters and Shepard’s Buried Child.”
Details: Magic Child has been extended through October 13, 2013. The Magic Theatre is located in Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd. Building D. 3rd floor, San Francisco, CA. Parking is readily available at Fort Mason Center. Performances: daily performances Tues-Sunday. Tickets: Tues, Wed, Thurs: $45 to $55; Fri, Sat, Sun: $50-60. Purchase tickets online here or by phone (415) 441-8822. For more information about this play and Magic Theatre’s 2013-14 Season, visit http://magictheatre.org/.
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