The American theater scene in the twentieth century was dominated by hard-hitting, expertly written family dramas. From Eugene O’Neill’s look at turn-of-the-century family vices in Long Day’s Journey into Night to August Wilson’s portrayal of the evolving African-American experience in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” and from Tennessee Williams’ ethereal yet gritty trifecta of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Arthur Miller’s robust depiction of the decline of the American hero in Death of a Salesman, American playwrights have long been obsessed with the family unit as a whole and with debunking the ideal of the American dream.
In 1979, Sam Shepard revolutionized the genre with his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child. Set on a farm in Central Illinois in 1979, the play follows patriarch Dodge and his decaying family as they cope with old secrets. At once realistic and surrealistic, symbolic and grounded, Buried Child looks at how secrets and unresolved issues can slowly corrode a once vibrant family until they are nothing but skeletons of their former selves.
|Rob Donohoe as Dodge in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production Buried Child. Photo by Alicia Donelan
Blessed with an astonishing script, Palm Beach Dramaworks‘ production of Buried Child, on stage to April 26, is nothing short of a triumph. Dramaworks prides itself on producing theater to think about and staging oft-forgotten plays; occasionally, this results in the choosing of material that is lesser known for a good reason. In the case of Buried Child, the script stands on equal footing as the acting, direction and technical design, culminating in a production that is as moving and impressive as it is chilling.
Shepard’s script, which is layered with meaning and boasts difficult monologues and duets, demands a lot of its actors, and this cast delivers. As the always-onstage Dodge, Rob Donohoe transforms into a narrow-minded, acidic alcoholic with a nasty cough and a penchant for sarcasm. Dodge is the nucleus of this play, with other characters existing, if not necessarily revolving, around him. As the play progresses, Donohoe is tasked with conveying a bevy of emotions and with nailing many of the comedic and dramatic beats. Don’t get it twisted—the success of any Buried Child production begins and ends with the actor portraying Dodge, and Donohoe serves up the perfectly imperfect patriarch.
Director J. Barry Lewis leads the rest of the supporting cast in a study of give and take, reveal and conceal. As the stunted eldest son Tilden, Paul Tei takes meek to the extreme, rarely speaking even when spoken to, yet providing beaucoup character development through body language and tender line reads. A former football star, Tilden withdrew from the family and retreated to New Mexico for a couple decades, returning as a broken adult. Despite his lack of speech, his actions provide some of the play’s strongest symbolism. Whether he’s shucking corn, stroking a fur coat, searching for crops in a barren field or simply bathing in a rainstorm, his role is the most poetically poignant in the cast.
The momentum of the play takes off when Tilden’s son Vince (Cliff Burgess) and his girlfriend Shelly (Olivia Gilliatt) stop by the farm on their way to New Mexico to see Tilden. Of course, Tilden is in Illinois, not New Mexico, but this isn’t the only surprise Vince encounters at the dilapidated farmhouse. After only a six-year absence, neither his father nor his grandfather recognize him. He eventually exits to purchase a bottle of whiskey for Dodge and instead escapes for the entire evening, leaving Shelly behind to not only survive but also make sense of this strange family dynamic.
As Shelly, Gilliatt is the stiletto-sporting calm in this quickly building storm. Gilliatt brings a toughness to the role, reassuring the audience that she’s not in danger among these men. Her presence leads to a cathartic exhumation of a long-buried family secret, a moment from which there is no returning. As Vince, Burgess spends little time on stage but delivers one of the strongest monologues of the entire production, elevating the symbolism that permeates the play to a gut-wrenching plateau.
As the hypocritical wife and mother Halie, Angie Radosh glides through her scenes with a detached irreverence that is as compelling as her husband’s solipsism. And, as the lame brother Bradley, David Nail is an effective if sparingly used presence, imbuing his role with intimidation and vulnerability within the span of a few beats.
The final 20 minutes of Buried Child are some of the most compelling and emotionally upsetting in the American theater canon. As with the rest of the production, J. Barry Lewis guides his cast to a point of catharsis, one that highlights all of the themes and symbolism upon which Buried Child is built. Lewis and the actors clearly have a deep respect for this magnificent script, resulting in an unforgettable theatrical experience that will leave you feeling haunted, introspective and thoroughly unearthed.