Playwright: Sam Shepard
At: Writers Theatre, 625 Tudor Ct, Glencoe. Tickets: $50-70; WritersTheatre.org; 847-242-6000. Runs through: June 17
Buried Child, the surreal Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Sam Shepard, is a difficult play to watchnot because so much is happening, but because so little is happening.
This one is a slow burn: We are introduced to the world's most dysfunctional family meticulously, over the course of the first two acts. The characters are developed deliberately; it takes time to get to know them. Director Kimberly Senior's languid pace helps to give them the chance to grow as it helps the audience to assimilate into Shepard's story of an Illinois farm home broken by time, bad luck, modernization and secrets.
The pace is established in the first scene, before there is even any dialogue, as Larry Yando ( as the patriarch, Dodge ) sits on his couch watching television with the sound off, occasionally taking a drink from a hidden bottle or falling into a coughing fit; if he once was industrious and energetic, he no longer is anything but a carcass waiting to be. Dodge is practically inert, yet Yando is almost always the center of attention. It is a masterful acting job, yet it is easily complemented by the other performances in the play. Shannon Cochran ( as Halie, Dodge's wife ), manages to establish her character in a scene in which she is entirely offstage. The two broken sons, one emotionally and one physically, present different problems for the actors ( Mark L. Montgomery as the childlike Tilden and Timothy Edward Kane as the one-legged Bradley ), but both men are up for the challenge. Shane Kenyon and Arti Ishak make second-act appearances as Tilden's son and his girlfriend and each has powerful emotional moments. And there is also a morally compromised preacher, played by Allen Gilmore, who is having an affair with Halie.
Dodge has become what he now is due to the breakdown of his farm and his family. Several times he mentions that he has not planted since 1935, but it's easy to sense that the rise of the farming industry has a lot to do with his life falling into the sere. As the farm deteriorated over time, so too his family has fallen apart. Halie now spends all of her time upstairs, away from her husband. His favorite son, Ansel, is dead, the other two are shells, and Dodge has become so disinterested in life that, when his grandson shows up unexpectedly, he can't even recall having one.
Senior pulls outstanding performances from her cast as she highlights an American Dream that has fallen apart at the seams. The family's secret is devastating, but one gets the feeling that this family would have been doomed with or without it. Shepard has the audience often laughing at them, but he shows us the utter dissolution of one family's expectations. It's a difficult play to love, but a masterful piece of writing. Buried Child is infrequently revived due to its difficulty, but Senior and her cast are up to the task and make this a powerful, memorable experience.