For all its force and fluency, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is the theatrical equivalent of two-plus hours in an asylum. The Middle American farm family that resides within is not merely dysfunctional. Take the men folk: son Bradley is a menacing one-legged (thanks to a chainsaw) creature in overalls; son Tilden is ghostly and near catatonic; Grandpa Dodge is a hacking, whiskey-swigging corruption of that old farmer in Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic.” All of them, along with Mama Halie, are in on a terrible secret that they seem to guard as if their lives depend on it. As such, the animus and creepiness of Buried Child is outweighed by its lit-powderkeg tension.
New Village Arts Theatre has demonstrated a proclivity for Shepard’s works, most recently staging a biting version of Simpatico, like this season’s Buried Child directed by Lisa Berger and featuring NVA Ensemble players. Buried Child, with its ardent symbolism, inference of incest, and gnawing metaphors about the myths of America’s heart and its heartland is the more ambitious work. NVA regular Jack Missett, as Dodge, is the three-act play’s ornery cuss and confessor, but also the mouthpiece for Shepard’s most stabbing commentary and his defacing of the Rockwellian family album. Missett is spot-on from the first growl. Always-dependable Manny Fernandes instills Tilden, protectively cradling ears of corn, with mystery and eeriness. Dana Case, as Halie, plays it big and loud, whether onstage or volleying with Dodge from an unseen upstairs. Adam Brick, as grandson Vince, and Kelly Iverson as his L.A. girlfriend Shelly, seem to bring normal-sounding incredulousness to the otherwise-mad farmhouse when they arrive in Act 2. But it doesn’t last. Each gets a shot at “going Postal” with Bradley’s detached artificial before the curtain falls.
Is it possible to strain the volatility of a play like this? At NVA, the explosive moments get a wacked-out treatment. As if “We pause to bring you a preview of the next “Cops” episode.” In the quieter revealing of The Secret and the passing of the family curse from Dodge to young Vince, this Buried Child reaps, like crops from beyond, its rewards.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.