It was a different cultural America when Sam Shepard penned the play “Buried Child” in 1978. As the author of some 45 plays, there are on-going themes that run throughout many of his plays. They are often dark, disturbing, and bleak. His characters are continually caught up in the quest for normalcy and a piece of the American dream. and are played out by dysfunctional families with dark secrets to protect. In “Buried Child”, Shepard’s 1970’s story is now the new normal when it comes to shocking behavior by today’s storytellers. Shepard hit the jackpot in 1979 with “Buried Child”, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Drama that launched his career as a major new American playwright.
In this intense College of the Desert (COD) production, directed by Tres Dean, metaphors abound: a failed father figure for the American dream; a mother who betrays her trust; two sons who represent their society and its culture becoming victims, and a grandson and his girlfriend who try to make sense of the American dream during the 60’s and 70’s where the father figure is expected, along with his wife, to leave the children of their marriage in a position “better off” than their parents left them.
That will never happen for the alcoholic and dying Dodge (Mason McIntosh) and the bitterly disappointed Hallie (Mari Kerber). Their family farm in Illinois has fallen into a state of near bankruptcy through neglect and their failed marriage. Their two children, Tilden (Johnny Bolth) and Bradley (Chris Hoggatt), are flawed in so many ways that they will never become part of the American dream. Tilden has slipped into a mentally challenged state, and his brother Bradley, has lost a leg to a chain-saw farm accident. The family is barely functioning. All they do is snarl their dialogue at one another.
Into this potentially explosive situation comes Vince (Paul Mackey) the grandson of Dodge and the son of Tilden, with his girlfriend Shelley (Miranda Hane) in tow. Vince has been gone so long that when he and Shelley return for a brief visit, no one recognizes him as a member of the family. Shelly, the only character that appears to be somewhat “normal” tries to convince Vince to just move on and not cause any trouble in this obviously dysfunctional family. But Vince has other ideas.
The secrets that tear at the fabric of the family are revealed late in the second act, however, there is a lot of shouting and yelling at one another that goes on before we get to that denouement. The young actors are earnest and passionate in their portrayals, but it can become heavy going on the part of the audience in the quest for relevancy for what is taking place on stage. Auditory overload (too much shouting and yelling at one another) is a recipe for audience turnoff, so voice modulation protocol needs to kick-in to gear. We’re only about 35 feet from the actors in the Pollock Theatre. Sometime, less is better. It’s just a suggestion… However, actors McIntosh, Bolth, and Hane, do make the most of their time on stage. Cast member Jesse Bentley has the unenviable role of representing religion in the story as a priest who plays fast and loose with his vows. Once again Shepard reminds us how flawed some our institutions are.
Director Dean and his creative team led by JW Layne as scenic, technical, sound, and lighting designer provides a set right out of tobacco road. It has that lived-in and neglected look of a rural farm in decline. Kailey Osgood-McAuliffe’s costumes reflect the time period, and Noemi Villaela Dean’s, Musical Sound design interludes are nicely appropriate. When one hears Johnny Cash singing lyrics that fit the mood and theme of the play, you know you’re not in a big urban city anymore.
“Buried Child”, at COD’s Pollock Theatre runs through March 23rd. For tickets call 760-773-2565.