Review: Shattered Globe’s “Buried Child”

Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed.

 

 

Buried Child
by Sam Shepherd
Shattered Globe Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepherd wrote Buried Child, his ode to the tarnished American dream, in 1978, tapping inspiration from an America disillusioned from a soul-crushing war and economic stagflation. Now, as perpetual war and economic crisis frustrates our own era, Shattered Globe Theatre has revisited Shepherd’s Midwestern epic.

Director Steve Scott  focuses on elucidating the rifting generations in this eulogy for the modern American family unit. Three generations, spanning the 20th Century experience, inhabit the decrepit central Illinois house. Dodge and Halie (a cranky Maury Cooper and caustic Linda Reiter) come from an obsolete agriculture past. Their sons, Bradley and Tilden (Greg Kopp and Gerrit O’Neill), are emotionally and physically handicapped, matching their 1970’s America, nearly a decade after the counterculture revolution came to an abrupt end. Finally, the generation that ushered in punk rock and is represented by Tilden’s son, Vince (David Dastmalchian), and his girlfriend Shelly (Helen Sadler). The play begins with Vince swinging by his grandparents’ house after six years; instead of a fun family reunion, he is baffled because no one, not even his own father, recognizes him.

In Shattered Globe Theatre's "Buried Child", Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed. The depiction of this Illinois family just becomes more twisted as the play goes on. With her first glance of the house, Shelley likens it to a Norman Rockwell painting. As evidence of rape, incest, and murder bubble to the surface, any down-home feeling attached to the house quickly dissipates. Themes of family and heritage abound in the play, especially in a ghoulish image that several characters witness—glimpsing a face within a face. Like the splitting generations, Scott punches up these themes, and the play takes on an eerie, nearly Biblical feel.

Kevin Hagan encapsulates this epic mood with his dilapidated set. The world is a fusion of prosperity and poverty, ancient and modern, pride and shame. A static-y television sputters nonsense in front of a torn Second Empire style-sofa. The set also radiates a royal aura: Halie slowly walks down the stairs praising her favorite but deceased son, reeking of Classical Greek tragedy.

Thematically-speaking, some of the performances aren’t in line with the rest of the production, however. Cooper’s Dodge is too much ornery, embittered old man and not enough fallen patriarch. His moments of despair and impassioned anger are still powerful, but they lose teeth because Cooper pushes the humor of the script too far. Kopp has a difficult time balancing his characterization of the one-legged Bradley. He can find Bradley’s imposing, predator side but can’t quite find the infantile counterpoint once his leg is stolen. Sadler’s Shelley is another weaker performance, turning out a bit too annoying.

maurylindaandgerrit-400x266Dastmalachian’s Vince hits the right amount of youthful vigor with just enough instability. As Vince’s shell-shocked father, Tilden, O’Neill manages to be both tender and terrifying. Along with Reiter’s caustic portrayal of Halie, these performances infect the production with suspense, humanity, and madness.

The Shattered Globe production’s staging is dynamic and creepy. Scott fits this story into the intimate stage wonderfully, and uses plenty of levels to illustrate the epic forces shaping the story. Mike Durst’s subtle lighting design helps by imparting an uncanny atmosphere for the world. The design and direction meld to make Shepherd’s creation appropriately perverse.

While Buried Child is definitely darkly funny, the Shattered Globe struggles too hard to make the humor pop. However, the production is still disturbing and undeniably relevant to our situation. Although our national consciousness has altered since the writing of the play, our world is similar to the one Vince dwells in. Shepherd’s critique of shattered American dreams connects to a bleak reality many of us have glimpsed.

Rating: ««½ 

Buried Child,” by Sam Shepard
Directed by Steve Scott
Featuring ensemble members Allison Batty, Maury Cooper, and Linda Reiter
May 14 – July 12, 2009
Tickets $20-$35

 

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“Buried Child,” by Sam Shepard
Directed by Steve Scott
Featuring ensemble members Allison Batty, Maury Cooper, and Linda Reiter
May 14 – July 12, 2009
Tickets $20-$35

Previews: May 14 to 16
Press Opening: Sunday, May 17 at 3 p.m.Regular Run: 5/21 – 7/12: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child” is a macabre look at an American Midwestern family with a dark, terrible secret; a secret which has all but destroyed the family. With its lower-class, sometimes humorous, recognizable characters and dialogue, “Buried Child” resembles the mid-century American realism and grotesquerie of Arthur Miller (“Death of a Salesman”) or Tennessee Williams (“A Streetcar Named Desire”). However, its roots in ritual and its approach to monumental, timeless themes of human suffering—incest, murder, deceit, and rebirth—resemble the destruction wreaked by the heroes of Greek tragedy. The play contains many of Shepard’s favorite motifs: a quirky, often frightening, family of antagonists contained in a claustrophobic farmhouse somewhere in the great American Midwest. Harold Clurman, in his review of the play’s New York premiere at the Theater for the New City on October 19, 1978, for In the Nation wrote ‘‘What strikes the ear and eye is comic, occasionally hilarious behavior and speech at which one laughs while remaining slightly puzzled and dismayed (if not resentful), and perhaps indefinably saddened. Yet there is a swing to it all, a vagrant freedom, a tattered song. Something is coming to an end, yet on the other side of disaster there is hope. From the bottom there is nowhere to go but up.”

Shattered Globe’s programs are partially supported by The Alphawood Foundation; CityArts 1 grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs; Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation; Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation; Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; the Mid-North Association; Much Shelist; and the annual support of businesses and individuals. 

Founded in 1991, Shattered Globe Theatre is an ensemble-driven organization whose primary objectives include dissecting, challenging, and reveling in the American experiment; inspiring social discourse by provoking questions rather than espousing philosophy; stimulating artistic growth for and broadening the perspectives of both artist and audience; and pushing the boundaries of excellence in ensemble theatre. To this end, SGT brings it’s primarily Chicago and Illinois-based audiences fresh renditions of classic works and premiere productions that celebrate new voices and provocative viewpoints.

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