Any time a new performing arts venue is introduced into the landscape, independent theatre companies eagerly take notice. One such spot opened early last year in the Hamilton-Lauraville neighborhood of Baltimore called Function Coworking Community. The building hosts a 1500 square foot mixed-use arts space, along with office and conference room facilities which can be rented by the hour, day, or month. Barry Feinstein’s Theatrical Mining Company is one of Function’s tenants and is presenting a lovely production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” there between now and Groundhog Day.
… the absurd is real and escape is impossible.
“Buried Child” is the work that put actor/playwright Shepard on the national map, winning him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. Forty years after its premiere it remains a popular programming choice for producing companies due in part to its timeless motifs of isolation, delusion, betrayal, and denial in a thematic framework which attempts to dissect the crumbling idea of the American family. In it, Shepard applies his own postmodern sensibility (and shock) to the kind of ideas Edward Albee introduced twenty years earlier with “The American Dream.” “Buried Child” presents a similar story of loss, but here no one is spared its pain by the veneer of farce. Here, the absurd is real and escape is impossible.
Opening with a delightful choice of segue, Director Feinstein’s curtain speech is interrupted by the coughing, staggering entrance of family patriarch Dodge (Jeff Murray), who, ignorant of the intrusion, carries his pint bottle of Jim Beam over to the sofa and collapses. Once the audience is duly directed to turn off cell phones, the introductions are over and Dodge begins a shouting match with his offstage wife, Halie (Billie Taylor). We are in a rural home, somewhere in Illinois in the 1970s. Dodge and Halie share a dark, shattering family secret – and very little else, save for a trio of adult sons: one dead, one maimed, and one deeply troubled. The latter is Tilden (Thom Sinn), their eldest, who has a habit of harvesting batches of whatever’s growing in the backyard and carrying it into the house. Ansel, the deceased war hero, doesn’t appear in the play in the flesh but is ever-present nonetheless (in the manner of Laura’s missing “Glass Menagerie” father). Bradley (Adam Zeollner) sports a wooden leg which he earned by way of carelessness with a chainsaw. He is more highly skilled in the use of electric hair clippers, as his father Dodge is angrily well aware.
The household is anything but peaceful, and matters worsen with the unexpected arrival of Tilden’s son Vince (Adrian McDermott) and Vince’s girlfriend Shelly (Molly Mayne), who are in the middle of a road trip from their home in New York to New Mexico, where they believe Tilden is living. Stopping in Illinois to visit Vince’s grandparents along the way, the pair are surprised to find that Tilden has moved back home and that, despite an absence of only six years, nobody seems to remembers Vince. After some very uncomfortable confrontation Vince leaves the house for a time, placing Shelly in grave danger. Bradley, who sheared his sleeping father at the end of the first act, returns late in the second and assaults Shelly in a jarringly disturbing way. Halie, also AWOL, returns home in act three with side-piece Father Dewis (William Hawthorne) in tow. Shelly, the desperately frightened outsider, somehow finds her strength and propels the family towards the inevitable.
Feinstein takes full advantage of Shepard’s pacing in his direction of this production, allowing the shifts in urgency to drive the action. In various ways, each of these characters is alone, and Feinstein enables all of them to inhabit their cages of tragic circumstance. His ensemble of actors provide some rich material, too – Zoellner is truly frightening as Bradley, whose attack of Shelly is so immensely troubling that one feels almost unable to move during the intermission which immediately follows. Mayne plays the attack brilliantly too, and throughout the play does great work of gradually allowing Shelly’s depth to reveal itself. As the priest, Hawthorne is wonderfully bewildered and morally impotent, content to hide in the kitchen with Halie while the drama blows over. Billie Taylor’s Halie is rich with calculation, bitterness, and at the same time, a fragile outer layer of dignity. McDermott, a young actor, provides Vince with a good “fish out of water” sense, finally emerging victorious in the final scene.
The most powerful performances are by Jeff Murray as Dodge and by Thom Sinn as Tilden. In the role of Dodge, Murray zeroes in on the character’s sense of true helplessness which dominates all the people around him. Murray’s Dodge is exhausted, angry, bemused, and eventually, resigned. The stakes for him are never so high as when he swings wildly between flattery and intimidation while trying to recruit someone to run the the liquor store for him, nor so low as when he ultimately decides to throw everything away. Dodge asks “Who gives a damn about bones in the ground?”, not with indignation, but with indifference. Sinn is fondly remembered from the Cohesion Theatre production of “Sally McCoy” two years ago. Here he plays a backward, defeated man whose wounds run far deeper than Bradley’s. In a wordless reveal at the end of the play, Sinn enters to gasps from the audience, bearing Tilden’s final bitter crop.
Worthy of note here is the fact that the character of Bradley, a man who’d lost a leg, is performed by an “able bodied” actor. While Adam Zoellner does a very fine job in the role, one wonders about a possible missed opportunity to cast a more physically appropriate actor.
There are nit-picky observations to be made, too – in the 1970s, there wouldn’t be plastic grocery bags – Vince wouldn’t have a cell phone in his pocket – most of the shoes, and definitely the baseball cap, would be different. But this isn’t a production with $300 budgets for props, or costumes, or even likely for both combined. Modest production values here are of really little importance. The script, the direction, and the performances of this cast are what make this a terrific show.
Advisories: Sexual violence, murder, profanity.
Running Time: 138 minutes with two intermissions.
“Buried Child” appears through February 2 at Function Coworking Gallery, 4709 Harford Road, Baltimore. For tickets visit online.