You can’t go home again — but you never can escape it, either. Such is the maddening paradox of family ties imprisoning the characters in the late Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” at A Noise Within.
With its uncompromising mix of dark comedy, menace and mystery, Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner shows remarkable staying power. The play’s recession-era setting — a rundown house on a once-fertile family farm in Illinois — has particular resonance in light of the economic challenges again facing today’s agricultural sector.
For this family, though, the rot is coming primarily from within. The play opens with a prolonged, escalating coughing fit from the decrepit patriarch, Dodge. He’s old, he’s dying, but as played with magnificent caustic crankiness by A Noise Within co-founder Geoff Elliott, he’s not about to go gentle into that good night.
Pity is a scarce commodity in Shepard’s sharp-edged plays, and Dodge’s aches and pains — along with his insults — are brushed off with chirpy nonchalance by his wife, Halie (Deborah Strang), as she prepares for an overnight fling with the local preacher (Apollo Dukakis). So much for heartland values.
Having Halie taunt Dodge from offstage for most of the first act cleverly represents the distance between them in physical as well as emotional terms. Merging the literal with the metaphorical is one of the play’s enduring strengths.
Halie later steps into the limelight with a vengeance in Strang’s fiery performance, unleashing rage and frustration on Dodge and their two loser sons. Loud-mouthed Bradley (Frederick Stuart) accidentally cut off his own leg with a chainsaw, and Tilden (Michael Manuel), a grimy, near-silent hulk, has returned to the family bosom following some kind of trauma. Neither can measure up to the deceased third son that Halie idolizes in her fantasies.
If the scathing initial volleys between Dodge and Halie invite comparison with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the second act darkens into something out of Harold Pinter. It’s “The Homecoming — American Style” when estranged grandson Vince (Zach Kenney) shows up with his girlfriend (Angela Gulner) in tow. Though it’s only been six years, Dodge apparently doesn’t even remember him. In Vince’s resulting fight to reclaim his place in the family lies a very twisted coming-of-age story.
Plot similarities to other plays notwithstanding, there’s nothing derivative about the way Shepard’s dialogue treads a fine line between hard truths revealed and dark secrets concealed in the hollow shell of a deconstructed American Dream.
“Buried Child” was the gateway play that brought Shepard’s muscular, savagely funny and often elliptical writing from the avant-garde theatrical fringes to mainstream Broadway.
For this production, A Noise Within Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott returns to Shepard’s revised script, which the company performed in 1997. This time around, her staging moves briskly through material that could easily clock in at three hours. The lively pacing tends to emphasize the play’s absurdist humor over its creepiness, and some levels of character weirdness could be further explored.
Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking this for “All in the Family.” The production gets all the fundamentals right, and opportunities to see Shepard’s masterpiece done this well are few and far between.