BURIED CHILDby Sam Shepard
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre
Directed by Karen Matheny
Assistant Director – Alex Krus
Set Design – Amy Brown
Lighting Design – Bryan S. Douglas
Sound Design – Alex Krus
Costume Design – Hope Cox
Props Design – Lyndi Wade
Stage Manager – Lyndi Wade
Delmar H. Dolbier – Dodge
Nancy Lamb – Halie
Seth Johnston – Tilden
Danny Macchietto – Bradley
Nicholas Zebrun – Vince
Erica Maroney – Shelly
Mark G. Makin – Father Dewis
Reviewed Performance: 1/13/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Buried Child premiered in 1978 and, with its move to New York that year and a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Sam Shepard vaulted into the zeitgeist as a major playwright. He was often called The Greatest Living American Playwright (he died in 2017). Shepard said he always wanted to "destroy the idea of the American family drama," read American dream, and this play goes a long way towards accomplishing that.
Buried Child grabs an audience by the scuff of the neck and drags them into the midst of a dysfunctional family on a failed Illinois farm. With frequent moments of comedy one might see when a family unravels, the family secret that drives these characters eventually comes out to reveal why they kept silent.
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre courageously takes on difficult stories. Buried Child requires actors to commit totally to the flaws in their characters. It's a terrific challenge, but Director Karen Matheny assembled a cast who did just that, eschewing personal comfort to tell a horrific story. Six of the seven were new to TART, so it was a risk for Matheny, a risk she nailed!
The setting is the Illinois house where Dodge and Halie raised their sons on a once large and successful farm business. It's long-since failed and the family fortunes followed that failure. Set Designer Amy Brown created a stern and basic living room set where most of the action took place. A short stairway to an unseen upstairs and a wide porch seen through the rear wall extends playing area. This sparse space parallels the lives of the family. Props designed by Stage Manager Lyndi Wade were used to great effectiveness, a handful of corn, a false leg, a small flask, reflecting a lower middle-class poverty seen a lot in American farmland over the past 30-years.
Sound Design by Assistant Director Alex Krus and Lighting by Designer Bryan S. Douglas added to a cold atmosphere that subtly hinted at a simmering layer of muck beneath the surface. If there's an improvement for this show, it's the lighting of that back porch. Even while an all-day rainstorm raged, and clear day and night times were mentioned, that porch always looked dark.
Costumes suggested an outer persona and inner turmoil for characters. Hope Cox gave Halie a simple, tasteful elegance, betraying her personal secrets. A minister in priest's garb, a son with a fake leg, three men in various forms of disheveled physical loss, all showed a family barely treading water, where a small leak could drown them all.
Buried Child opens with Delmar Dolbier as Dodge laying on the sofa in a quiet house. Dodge is the patriarch who built the farm and saw it fail. I've seen Dolbier in numerous parts and always thought him a very good character actor for the important bit parts that make shows fun to watch. But Dodge is a major role and Dolbier created a hardened, hurt, cynical father and husband who was both interesting and tragic, and often funny. Dodge's old-man quips are comments intended to hurt someone, if anyone cared, and we laugh with them in spite of the discomfort. Dolbier hid an underlying tinge of hateful resentment through those moments which leaked out to remind us of our hidden resentments. Dodge is essentially invalid, so it's a struggle to move and especially to hide his forbidden flask under the couch pillow he's lying on. Dolbier made this string of small struggles add up to a huge struggle to stay alive and maintain some control of his house. He fails at this too.
Halie is Dodge's wife of many years. She's a religious zealot on the surface, though you get the idea she might also be devoutly devoted to Father Dewis. Nancy Lamb imbued Halie with a steady, motherly tone in her stream of comments about Dodge and the rain and their sons. She clearly hasn't had any warmth for Dodge for years. Lamb's initial 10-minutes of lines came from upstairs, out of sight. These had a feel of someone talking to herself, only partly wanting Dodge to hear her. They seemed more like monologue than conversation, but they clearly showed a family where the mom and dad talk past each other without having to interact. But when Lamb finally appeared, she was dressed elegantly, ready to visit the minister, managing to hide her own painful memories. Her demeanor gave Halie a strong shield against revealing anything wrong in the family. But from this initial point, Halie entered extreme arc to her ending when Lamb showed Halie's signs of utter shock and repulsion. The revelation explains why.
Seth Johnston as Tilden, the oldest son just back from an unexplained trouble in New Mexico, and Danny Macchietto as Bradley, a younger son who stayed home, play brothers with extreme flaws. Each has lost something crucial. Bradley is missing a leg and the mind that comes from resenting that handicap. Tilden has lost his mind. It's hard to know why and harder to know if Tilden is just quiet, simple, retarded, or deranged. But these brothers are deeply mired in something so painful no one can talk about it.
It's hard to talk about Johnston and Macchietto separately. Their characters are two sides of a coin. Tilden wanders in the fields and shows up with ears of corn where none have grown since the dust bowl. His walk, his talk, the way he holds himself, every eye movement, his long stares at other actors, all these create a character who's not quite dangerous, but clearly a-social. Macchiato's Bradley, on the other hand, is angry and appears menacing and scary. His missing leg could be a weapon, but Bradley can hurt someone by just projecting his anger. When either character is seen on-stage, there's an uncomfortable pall over the story. Both of these are powerful performances. I've seen both actors in other plays and I think these may be their finest performances in the way they courageously dove into a character's deep demented psychology.
Into the midst of this egg-shell family comes Vince, son of Tilden, and his girlfriend, Shelly. They're passing through to get to New Mexico to see his dad. Vince wants to reconnect with the family, but doesn't know his dad is there. His family acts like they don't know him and then the story unwinds into an apparent death spiral.
Nicholas Zebrun's Vince is a normal young man until he enters the family Twilight Zone. Shepard wrote Vince as the main character, because "he's the closest to being autobiographical." He enters as a seeming after-thought and becomes crucially important to the family's future. How will he handle that change? Zebrun entered playing the positive-thinking, energetic guy with lots to look forward to, wanting to show off his girlfriend. Vince ends as a character diametrically opposed to that and that makes the story turn tragic. Zebrun skirted through many emotional levels of a young guy losing control of everything he thinks he knows and plunging into the depths of the family crisis. This emotional fall is palpable.
Shelly is Vince's girlfriend. Erica Maroney played Shelly as a young, city-girl with country innocence as she tries to fit into this new family. There's fear about meeting the family, but a little excitement. In time, she must stand up to abuse and fear and Maroney seems comfortable shifting between these subtle emotional levels. Maroney took this almost-timid character and turned her into a strong voice of the outside normal world looking at this psycho-melodrama. It's Shelly who voices statements of reason, albeit to deaf ears, but Maroney built Shelly into a woman who demands normalcy and gets out when there is none.
Mark G. Makin plays Father Dewis. He likes the ladies, especially Halie. This is the character who revealed Halie as the hypocrite we suspected her to be, but we don't get much of a backstory for him. Makin played the archetypal minister, and it's plausible to accept a minister in love with drink and sex. But Shepard didn't develop this character. Father Dewis drops into this maelstrom expecting he can calm things down. Makin makes him look lost and incapable when, in his most desperate time, Father Dewis' faith fails him and Makin showed this uncertainty.
Buried Child is an outstanding piece of American tragic drama, but far from the typical 20th Century family we idealized. Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre does a good job of making an audience uncomfortable while questioning our perception of well-adjusted families. We know most families have some level of dysfunction. It's usually well-hidden. But the rain's gonna fall sometime and the secrets will leak. This one is possibly more extreme than we might admit, but it could easily be lifted out of today's headlines. So buckle up. "Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been" (G. Dead).
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre
Fort Worth Community Arts Center in the Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through January 27th
Friday and Saturday night at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2pm
Friday and Saturday evening - $20 for adults (discounts available).
Saturday and Sunday matinee - $18 for adults (discounts available).
For information and tickets, go to www.THETART.org or call -682-231-0082.