Posted by: strugglesome | July 6, 2011

The Kids Are Alright: Temple Repertory Theater presents Buried Child

Happy families are all alike but unhappy families are all different. Am I the first person to write that? Of course not, but Leo Tolstoy lived and died before the age of copyright, so I’m appropriating his words with impunity. Isn’t modernity grand? But just because they are stolen from another writer doesn’t mean my sentiments aren’t true, and few families prove the opening lines to Anna Karenina better then the one Sam Sheppard has created with his iconic portrait of real life arrested development, Buried Child. Because this small Midwestern family, whose last name we never learn, is seriously unhappy. And seriously strange. Their home is a slow moving quicksand of secrets and lunacy, and the poison in the roots of this family tree seeps into every crack and hole of their dilapidated farmhouse, leaving no man (or woman) standing in it’s wake. There. Bet your family looks downright functional in comparison, right?

When Sheppard premiered this play in 1978 he had been writing for over 14 years and was well into his prime as a playwright, and as a result this work explores the themes Sheppard so adores to discuss in a manner that is both thorough and abstract. Economic depression, the death of the American Dream, the crushing of the nuclear family unit myth, the twisting of love in obsession and self destruction, this work hits them all, uncompromisingly.  Playing with genre and style, this work exists both in the hyper-real and the surreal, with a dash of symbolism thrown in, for kicks. Dodge (Gregg Almquist) sits entrenched on his couch in his dingy dilapidated living room (stark and minimalist set courtesy of Daniel Boylen) like Winnie in Happy Days but without the sunny nature and mound of earth. His wife, Hallie (Nancy Boykin) shrieks down at him from her bedroom upstairs, that is, when she’s not off gallivanting with God and boozing with the local Preacher, Father Dewis (Michael Friel). Their two living sons, the emotionally damaged and mentally troubled Tilden (Rob Kahn) and the brusque and devious crippled Bradley (Steve Kuhel)  haunt their home with vegetables, hair clippings and regret (the big three). And they probably would have continued unhappily along like that were it not for the entrance of Tilden’s estranged son Vince (Julian Cloud) along with his giggling girlfriend Shelly (Jasmine StClair) which breaks through the layers of dust and shame clouding the many secrets and lies of this family and then, well, okay, fine, everyone just submerges back in to the secrets and shame and lies and whatever. I’m sorry, what part of that Anna Karenina reference did you not understand?

Played, like Tartuffe, in Temple’s more intimate Randell Theater, this production has stripped bare many of Sheppard’s original set and costume elements as indicated in the text and highlighting the more surreal aspects of the work. Scored by David O’Connor’s rather awkwardly tongue in cheek sound design, Dodge and his couch and television live in an amorphous space whose internal boundaries seem somehow blurred. Part of what makes this work interesting is that it is so strongly tied to the geography, the world of the house, and that anything exterior is important. People come and go but never really leave (it’s very Hotel California that way) and the space takes on a metaphoric quality, it is a Purgatory of sorts, encasing it’s inhabitants in stagnant sameness, and the only way to escape is to die. So setting the piece in a set that doesn’t include doors and walls is difficult, because it forces the actors to represent that feeling of containment without physical elements that contain. And Kern’s direction works hard to make the internal barriers as real and strong as external ones could be, but some of his cast is more adept at this then others.  Part of the issue lies in Sheppard’s three act structure, which Kern has divided with two intermissions. Kind to the actors, perhaps, but it’s hard to keep exiting and re-entering this difficult and challenging world, not to mention the disruptions it makes in the rhythms and pace of the piece. On the other hand, it’s not unwelcome to get a break from such light and comedic material….

Slashed with cold clear light piercing this troubled home (excellently spare and clean lighting design by John Hoey) and clothed neatly but with complete disregard for the period from which this play comes and Sheppard’s directives by designer Jamie Grace-Duff, the cast is clearly working hard to solidify and make clear the many mysteries inherent in this work. Almquist and Boykin are especially excellent, the world of the play is so clear to them, their histories and relationships are etched into every thing they say and do, and they relate to each other so strongly and naturally that you can see  their dependence, their resentment, their inertia and their tragedies within the first few minutes of the work. Kahn’s Tilden, on the other hand, takes a bit more time to hit his stride, wandering through the first act like a man whose brain lives in another room and only achieving  deep and effecting layers and letting memories surface in his appearances in the second and third acts of the play. Kuhel’s opaque, stuttering and oddly accented Bradley barely gets a chance to register, and Friel’s Father Dewis misses many of his comedic opportunities, but gets the job done.

Cloud’s Vince is fantastic, confused and desperate yet so much a part of this world and this family that his final actions to stay in the house and sink down into the dark depths of this world seem both natural and shocking, both obvious and sad. It’s just a shame that StClair’s Shelly, a part that ought to be the most recognizable and empathetic, is instead largely one dimensional and sharp. Shelly is the only fully realistic character in a room full of people removed at least one step from reality. It’s almost as though a character from a modern playwright’s pen has wandered into a Beckett play, and while everyone around her is waiting for Godot, she’s the only one who cares about breakfast. But StClair’s performance is often too superficial to be effecting, she doesn’t seem to be able to find the layers and depths of this character, instead relying on confused sassy anger to react to everything around her.

However, internal issues aside, the majority of this work is strongly enough presented by director and cast alike that it still stands as a harrowing and troubling rumination on the death of dreams. And if the incestuous themes and more subtle specifics get a little muddled, well, that’s more Sheppard’s responsibility then any production’s, and maybe that’s as it should be. After all, this work isn’t an open book, it’s a swirling sea of danger and mystery, and as long as it leaves you thinking about it after you leave the theater, it’s more then done it’s job.

Temple Repertory Theater’s production of Buried Child will be running in repertory with Tartuffe from now until July 31st. Pick up tickets to both or either here.

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