Streamlined Buried Child Still Taps Shepard’s Inner Storm



by Michael Stever


Digging into the dark recesses of our own past is often painful. If you’re someone like Sam Shepard, no doubt calling on one’s demons probably takes on even darker prospects. His tether to the American landscape, coupled with his palpable disenchantment with it are equally powerful in the The New Group’s revival of Buried Child, now playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center. This version, however, is quite unique from previous productions and it’s these differences that are at the heart of what makes Shepard, and his “family plays” so unnerving, and not quite of this earth.


This production stars Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Larry Pine, Rich Sommer, Paul Sparks and Nat Wolff, and has been adapted from Shepard’s earlier rewrite which was showcased in the 1996 Steppenwolf Theater revival, directed by Gary Sinise.



Upon walking into the theatre we’re immediately met with Ed Harris’s Dodge character sitting stoically onstage, quietly watching TV, smoking . . . as a distant thunder storm ensues. No lights out or fade up here. It’s one righteous thunder clap and we’re off! Dodge, while still grizzled and full of piss and vinegar, doesn’t seem as much the “sick old man who swallowed a box of nails” as he does a grizzled vet who’s been rode hard and put away wet. Harris deserves major kudos here for playing it his way, rather than by historical example.


Amy Madigan’s Halie is also markedly unique, and still conveys a youthfulness despite her years. Rural farm life hasn’t fully consumed her (or so she thinks) and in this capacity she’s also a great match for Harris. Of course when her tyrannical, overbearing alter-ego mother from Hell finally emerges, she’s more ghastly and frightening than any soul-sucking vampire or horror movie monster the cinema hath wrought.


Prodigal son Vince (energetically played by Nat Wolff) and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga) enter with surprisingly fast precision—as a matter of fact, roughly six to eight minutes of their entrance has been completely cut from the play. For the most part I must applaud director Scott Elliot’s attempt to streamline this oft-produced three-act epic into a no-intermission one-act. However, where speed-of-delivery is often well handled and actually helps elevate the material, there were elements I found troubling. Vince’s “face morphing into his ancestor’s faces” monologue is barreled through with shot-gun expediency, and I found myself feeling let down when it concluded. This is not a monologue anyone can race through while still retaining its effectiveness.



Rich Sommer (Bradley) and Paul Sparks (Tilden) are both perfectly cast, each putting their own signature stamp on their twisted Cain and Abel sibling rivalry. Sommers lumbers maniacally, deftly maneuvering the house with his false leg and inflicting copious amounts of indoor bluster with alarming speed and deftly polished direction from Elliott (not to mention his “sneaky fingers” attack on Shelly, which comes from out of nowhere and is doubly shocking in this capacity). Spark’s Tilden is a lesson in defeat. Emotionally broken and tragically solemn, he floods the stage with a quiet strength and his armful of “mystery corn and carrots” from the long-dead crops perfectly counters Bradley’s narcissism.


Plays like Buried Child inspire us to dig deeper into what’s happening in the heartland of the United States. Addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs are not only key players here, but flat-out archetypal monuments to Shepard’s narrative. When Halie yells down the stairs to Dodge asking him to describe the storm outside, his response is one-word genius: “Catastrophic.” Buried Child is catastrophic, but its most stirring revelations are not buried deeply within this play’s namesake, but instead in the blisteringly unabashed suffering these characters revel in on a daily basis. That and the odd juxtaposition between a long dormant, fertile crop, and a family’s complete and utter disintegration.



Buried Child. Extended Through April 3 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.thenewgroup.org



Photos by Monique Carboni