Old almanacs are often filled with pithy adages about family composition, morality and values. Here’s something to ponder from humorist Kin Hubbard back in 1908:
“Distant relatives are the best kind. And the further the better.”
Playwright Sam Shepard, cowboy Sam, drifter Sam, car wrecker and sheep shearer Sam, maybe should have taken Hubbard’s advice instead of writing about a dysfunctional, fractured but living-under-the-same-roof, Illinois farm family in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” Torn Space Theater’s latest offering.
Come meet the group: Phlegmy patriarch Dodge; his wife, the shrewish Halie; monotoned and monosyllabic son Tilden; another son, mean and mutilated Bradley.
There are others. A grandson not remembered by anyone, Vince, appears with a young lady in tow; a useless town minister, flirting with Halie, cannot calm the collection of failed and frustrated occupants. “I’m from the quiet part of town,” he whimpers.
The above are gathered in a run-down farmhouse, the sardonic Dodge sick, immobile and dying, amazed at his plight, powerless to do anything about it; Halie constantly badgers and complains; the whacked-out Tilden, back from a troubled stint in New Mexico, finds corn and carrots growing in a field that sot Dodge has let lie fallow for years. Impossible, everyone says. Surly Bradley limps about, agitating. The men are emasculated in some way, emotionally or physically. Halie flits, confusing past and present, occasionally trying to resurrect what apparently once was a nuclear household before, well, a series of unspeakable “events,” things very bad, happened. The family vows never to speak of them. Since then, it rains incessantly, crops failed, the land is a bog. Very Shakespearean. The family of man out of synch. Nature’s wrath summoned.
This is the perfect setting for one of Shepard’s frequent funerals for the American Dream, disillusionment and disappointment pervading the nation’s psyche.
Shepard’s theories are once again aided by his usual themes: desperation, isolation, violence, temper, deceit. Add incest, murder and the always present Shepard staple, menace, and you have the makings for an uncomfortable, albeit intriguing, night at the theater, one interminable at times, riveting at others. Secrets abound, there is audience shudder, puzzlement and sadness – even some nervous laughter – and it’s a night of strange, symbolic and surreal images and ultimately, a take-home nightmarish memory.
“Buried Child” is perfect fare for Torn Space’s comfort zone, a dark piece that challenges cast and audience alike. Director David Oliver lets the story tell itself out, in all of its horror, leaving room for the barest of optimistic hints that a rebirth is possible. Things usually get worse in a Shepard tale. “Buried Child” is no exception.
Hope for the survivors is not a given here, yet it is not a lost cause in Oliver’s view.
The playwright once said, “I‘m pulled toward images that shine in the middle of junk.” The same seems true for director Oliver – thoughtful, careful – and his well-chosen, Shepard-ready ensemble: Mark Donahue, Sharon Strait, Patrick Moltane, Mark Witten, Jessica Wegrzyn, Kurt Erb and Tim Joyce. Meaty roles all, from the nasty to the weird, with one voice-of-reason, Wegrzyn’s Shelly, the catalyst behind disclosures that are overdue but deadly.
Special note must be made of actor Donahue, couch-bound, conscience-wracked, a growling relic awaiting the end of a life wasted. Memorable work.
The crumbling farmhouse set is by Greg Faust; Patty Rihn’s lighting designs aid.
3 stars (Out of four)
Through March 16 at Torn Space Theater, 612 Fillmore Ave., Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 812-5733 or visit www.tornspacetheater.com.