Comments on the Sam Shepherd Play, Buried Child

Buried Child

Dodge and Hallie have words in the Sam Shepherd play, Buried Child

The local college staged Buried Child this weekend. It’s certainly not a play for everyone. A couple I know who attended told me afterwards it was a waste of a good $28 for the tickets, but they thought the actors did a good job. I was on the other side of the fence. I think it’s such an important play I almost paid to go see it again, even though I thought half the actors were a little weak, while the others were so good they managed to save the performance from becoming a bad joke.

This isn’t going to be a plot summary. You can go to Wikipedia to find that. It also isn’t going to be a critique of the acting beyond what I said earlier. What I would like to do is explain why this dark tragedy is worth seeing if you ever have a chance.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is an important drama. Sam Shepherd won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for writing Buried Child. But it’s not a play that will send you home smiling and feeling good. It’s disturbing. Very disturbing. It’s so unsettling that you will need to laugh at some of the scenes to keep from running from the theater in disbelief and horror at the depths of dysfunction.

First of all, it’s staged with symbolic realism. That means it’s not absurd, where events happen to someone that make no sense. It also means that each person, and some of the objects in the play are symbols for something else.

The entire play takes place in one room of an old Illinois farmhouse, while the rain falls continuously outside. There are seven characters:

Dodge- the father patriarch who is dying. He has given up all attempts to command respect or authority and pretends there aren’t any problems in his world so that he doesn’t have to fix them. His biggest and loudest plea is for someone to buy him some whiskey (because Tilden has stolen what he had)

Hallie- his wife. She is a tragic-comic figure who is having an affair with the local minister, without any attempt to hide it. Her instinct is to find pleasure where it can be located. She seems to be fairly normal, but she is dominated by a constructed memory of the son who was murdered. In her mind she has made him larger than life and is having a statue erected that doesn’t even memorialize the correct sport he played.

Tilden- the oldest son. He has returned home after some vague troubles in New Mexico. He is obviously damaged goods now, mentally or emotionally. He keeps bringing in armloads of corn and fresh vegetables from the back yard where Dodge insists no one has planted any crops since 1935.

Bradley- the middle son. He appears to be somewhat normal, except that he now has one leg because he cut one off in a chain saw accident. As the play progresses we learn that he has aggressive tendencies.

Vince- Tilden’s son. He comes to visit after being gone for six years. No one recognizes him and he spends a good deal of the play trying to convince everyone of his identity. Even Tilden doesn’t recognize him.

Shelly- Vince’s girlfriend. She’s the outsider from Los Angeles who can’t make any sense out of the family members, who aren’t at all like Vince described, and admits they frighten her.

Father Dewis- the minister who is openly having an affair with Hallie.

Buried Child

Tilden searches for and finds the buried child

The Buried Child- not really a cast member, but the ever-present specter of the sin and evil hidden in the back yard.

All these characters represent stages in the death of the American Dream: the reneging on responsibility (Dodge), the inability to accept the failures of the past (Hallie), the loss of innocence and the consequences of evil (Tilden), the overcompensation for corruption or hurt (Bradley), failure to connect with the future (Vince’s inability to get a response), the corruption of those who should provide moral guidance (Father Dewis).

The upcoming generations have the choice of whether to be apathetically drawn into the failing family or to accept it for what it is, but move on to find a better reality.

The American family has not lived up to expectations and has sunk to unthinkable lows. It turns out to be not at all what was envisioned, and yet there is unexpected life sprouting from the very grave of the buried child.

If you have some internal fortitude, and ever have a chance to see this play, I highly recommend it. Watch it, think about it. Discuss it with some people who seem to care about the future. I guarantee it will provoke discussion.

Photos by the author: J.H. Young


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