The South Coast Repertory’s program notes for Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” quote Shepard as saying, “One of the weird things about being in America now is that you don’t have any connection with the past. . . . You’ve got this emotional thing that goes a long way back, which creates a certain kind of chaos, a kind of terror.”

“This emotional thing” has been a live wire in Shepard since the beginning of his writing career, but it wasn’t until “Buried Child” (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979) that everything came together in a balance between expression and his roiling subconscious.

“Buried Child” is a great play; the SCR production shows us how it belongs on a level with “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Glass Menagerie” in its evocative intricacy and culminating emotional impact.


Sam Weisman’s direction plays up “Buried Child’s” considerable humor instead of its portent--which makes us vulnerable to the play’s sinister undercurrents. Ralph Waite’s old man Dodge looks like a raggedy, inert character out of Samuel Beckett, but the neat bite of his sarcasm is pure Shepard, and we see in him the crustiness of every old codger whose hopes and enthusiasms have been destroyed. Waite’s performance is economical and quietly authoritative.

The play is set in Illinois farm country, and Nan Martin as Halie, Dodge’s wife, has the right stringy Midwestern look; her vocal tone contains the singsong quality of those monologues people in lonesome places conduct, as if hearing one’s own voice displaced the crushing monotony of the surrounding flatland. Together--Dodge pulling on a whiskey bottle he keeps hidden in a sorry-looking couch, and Halie cawing from the next room--they resemble a post-apocalyptic Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

Raymond J. Barry plays their son Tilden, who has returned from a long absence in New Mexico. (He makes a veiled reference to being “driven out,” but not until the end do we get some idea why--without anyone saying a thing.) Tilden was, we’re told, an All-American fullback (or was he? Halie later makes the same implausible claim for their other son, an ex-soldier who “married into the Catholics” and was murdered in a motel room).

Barry’s Tilden is big and dark and slow, with quirky Frankenstein moves; it’s a tribute to his performance that, without making any surface changes, Tilden moves from being an object of laughter who seems as pliant as a puppy to a figure of awesome menace.

Tilden, in fact, most embodies “Buried Child’s” implosive, chain-reaction quality. On the surface it appears we’re watching a rough-hewn collection of “Family Feud” types, while underneath, the mystery of why they’re the way they are edgily deepens.

Another mark of a first-rate work is that every major character is presented in full view. Vince, the young grandson, is on the road to New Mexico looking for his father Tilden; he stops in Illinois because he’s lost all sense of connection and he hopes the sight of old haunts and familial patterns will restore his lost sense of purpose. (Anthony Starke is skilled at Vince’s comic desperation.)

Vince leaves his girlfriend Shelly behind at the house while he goes out to buy whiskey for Dodge. (Tilden has stolen his bottle.) Shelly is “from L.A.,” as in “in from L.A.,” and Jennifer Parsons has the breezy smart-talking urban attitude down; her honey-blond good looks and ripe post-adolescent sensuality describe someone who’s never had a serious thought or encounter in her life.

For a while it looks as if “Buried Child” will follow the path of Pinter’s “The Homecoming” in having a timorous woman take over a family of rough males through the implied power of her sex. (Another debt to Pinter is paid in Dodge’s recitation of his will, which includes a listing of his tools where each descriptive image has a palpable quality and weight.)

But Shepard goes Pinter one further. Shelly is no queen mother; they’re well beyond the intrigue and pleasure of sex and deep under the curse of sexual misconduct. Act II concludes when Tilden’s one-legged brother, Bradley (Hal Landon Jr.), orders Shelly to open her mouth, whereupon he puts his fingers in.

(Landon’s face is steeped in the bitter incredulity of someone who’s accidentlly chopped off part of his leg in a chain-saw accident--a typical Shepard image in its depiction of instantaneous, terrible violence. For her part, Parsons shows how Shelly’s chirpy bravado crumbles in waves of nauseous anxiety as she sees she’s in over her head.)

The last act is a masterpiece of comedic counterpoint. A tipsy Halie returns home with the fatuously well-meaning Father Dewis (John-David Keller) in tow. Drunken Vince smashes beer bottles on the porch and literally tears his way through the screen. The terrified Shelly flees. Old man Dodge bares the unspeakable, the single act that has hit the family’s bloodlines like a dose of cyanide, before he succumbs.

A tide of rage rises in the room and Father Dewis (Keller’s head hunches into his shoulders as though he’s being pelted with mud) says, apologetically, “Halie, maybe this isn’t the time for a visit.”

“Buried Child’s” final horrific seconds give us the effect of having rushed up a flight of stairs, opened a roof door and accidentally plunged off the edge of a high building. In an instant we understand what has destroyed this family, how the rebuking child will never stay buried, and how they’re tormented under something as close to a curse as the 20th Century can provide.

In a way, Shepard is right: Americans don’t know about terror. Its spiritual icons are supernaturally inert. Terror is subdivided into categories of anxiety, paranoia, phobia and, in extreme cases, schizophrenia. There is always an official to give us an explanation; a media feature to give us the illusion of understanding. It’s up to the artist to put us face to face with the inexplicable, the fated, the curse signed into being by one’s own hand. “Buried Child” ends with a shock of recognition. It’s the closest thing we have to a classical tragedy in modern dress.

SCR’s design staff is up to its usual high standard. Dwight Richard Odle did the fine costumes, Tom Ruzika the lights and J.A.C. Redford the country music. There are no artifacts of family life in Ralph Funicello’s peeling interior, no cozy snapshots or woven homilies hanging on the dead walls. The ceiling is high and the living room is wide. We can see it’s one of those houses that doesn’t undercut the wind, ranch-style, but juts up against whatever whips across the plains. A house that stands tall.

‘BURIED CHILD’ A play by Sam Shepard. Directed by Sam Weisman. With Ralph Waite, Nan Martin, Raymond J. Barry, Hal Landon Jr., Anthony Starke, Jennifer Parsons and John-David Keller. Setting Ralph Funicello. Costumes Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting Tom Ruzicka. Music J.A.C. Redford. Production director Paul Hammond. Stage manager Julie Haber. Performances Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., Sat.-Sun. matinees, 2:30 p.m., at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa (714) 957-4033, through May 11.