Shepard’s Buried Child redefines American family dysfunction

By Frances Marion Givhan

Staff Writer

My sister and I left Trafalgar Studios with imaginary question marks over our heads, giving our brains time to process the heaviness and twisted nature of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. The play appears to be a typical dysfunctional family drama at the beginning, but actually revolves around darkness, shattered ideals, and a horrible, manic hopelessness that kills and drives characters mad. Having only read a brief description and attended at a friend’s recommendation, we had no idea what to expect stepping into the theatre.

The 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed in London by Scott Elliott of The New Group, depicts the tail-end of a deteriorating family’s downfall in Illinois. The family members tip-toe around a horrible secret that began their ruin, and not one of them wants to admit what transpired. As most secrets do when ignored, it festers among all the other perceived failings of the family.

Amy Madigan portrays Halie, the devoutly Christian and moralistic matriarch who is having an affair with the town priest. Dodge, her husband, played by Ed Harris, is an alcoholic confined to the old plaid couch, where he hides his bottle of whiskey, watches TV, and takes pills for his fading health. They have three sons: Tilden, Bradley, and Ansel, all of whom did not succeed in fulfilling the stereotypical image of masculinity. Tilden is mentally unwell, Bradley had his leg chopped off in a chainsaw accident, and Ansel died in a motel on his wedding night (Halie blames the Italian Catholic wife). The play portrays difficult family, one that struggles with power dynamics, coping with their past, and finding a way to live through their circumstances.

Stories focus on the day that everything changes, and Act 2 brings in the catalyst for change. Tilden’s son from a marriage no one speaks about, Vince (played by a charming, handsome, and frightening Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), arrives at the farm with his girlfriend, Shelly (Charlotte Hope, Game of Thrones). Dodge and Tilden do not recognize Vince, yet Shelly seems to have the magic touch of getting along with almost everyone. The two young ones cause the action to spiral into chaos, until the family’s secret can no longer stay buried.

The New Group’s production of Buried Child possesses elements that easily assimilate the audience into the world of the play. The set design alone captures the essence of the story’s anxious and tense mood. All of the action occurs in the downstairs living room, with Harris sitting on the couch throughout the entire show.

Rain pours down outside; when I looked through the house windows, the porch seemed to hold real depth, as if the yard did extend for miles, getting soaked by the shiny rain. Bowls sit on opposite corners of the room, catching water from the leaking roof. The house itself feels old and rundown, with faded pink and white wallpaper, the plaid couch and armchair, a door with smears of dirt, and lamps creating most of the lighting.

The lighting and set design have a simplicity to it that lends to the realistic nature of the setting, which is then supplemented by the actors’ effortless way of carrying through the scenes. Shelly and Dodge in particular caught my attention as beautifully written and excellently portrayed characters; Hope, who makes her West End debut in this show, and Harris deserve plenty of credit for their work.

Hope delivers her lines with professional ease and confidence. When she speaks, it feels as if she trusts the language of the play, and she does not add any unnecessary frills or qualities to Shelly. As the outsider who walks into this mess of a family, an audience member can immediately sympathize with her and view the action through her eyes. Initially, Shelly tries to see the best in each family member she meets; she helps Tilden peel carrots and listens to his stories, and she does not flinch from Dodge’s abrasive, honest nature.

Her relationship to Dodge is brilliant. Shepard chooses two characters with seemingly opposing personalities, Shelly with her innocent friendliness and Dodge’s self-centeredness, and has them interact in an entrancing way. Hope and Harris play off of each other so well that I want even more interactions between the two.

As for Harris’s Dodge, he has some of the best speeches and one-liners I have recently heard in a character, and Harris plays it all perfectly. Harris has an unbelievable energy that serves as the backbone of the show, as Dodge is meant to do. He never leaves the stage (he cannot actually), and oftentimes the audience finds themselves looking at his reactions to the actions unfolding around him. During Act 2, while Shelly and Vince are arguing about whether to leave or stay at the farmhouse, Dodge looks at them with observant, open eyes and declares, “You two are not my idea of the perfect couple.” The audience broke out laughing at Dodge’s seriousness comparing Shelly and Vince to “cheese and chalk.”

Dodge has an honesty that is enviable. He says what is on his mind and is the family member to ultimately reveal the family’s dark secret. The other characters, to varying degrees, also respect his right to speak. Toward the end of the play, he states that he will die any second now and goes through his will. It’s a long monologue that goes through everything he can think of and who it should belong to, and it’s one of the funniest moments in the production, amidst the exploding drama around him.

Despite the aspects of the show that cause it to thrive, many questions go unanswered by the characters. For example, who is Vince? Why do Dodge and Tilden, his own grandfather and father, not recognize him? Shelly repeatedly mentions that the family and house have a sense of familiarity to her, but why? How could Halie be so moralistic and religious when she is having an affair with a priest and is at the heart of the family’s downfall? Why is Ansel, the third son, so important? He could represent the hope that Halie has for her family, because he never lived long enough to experience what she perceives as the failure of his brothers. What happened to Tilden in New Mexico that made him move back home?

Due to the nuance nature of the play and the fact that one can miss crucial information by not listening for one second, Buried Child deserves to be seen a second time. Each one of the actors does an incredible portrayal of their characters, and the cast does not shy away from the hidden horrors of the story, but embraces them wholeheartedly.