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Fearsome and funny American family still resonates

Buried Child

Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Peter Hinton

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Starring David Fox

At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until Jan. 24

At the Segal Theatre in Montreal, Feb. 1 to 22

Rating: ***

The road to the Pulitzer prize for drama runs straight through the pill-strewn and booze-soaked living room of a dysfunctional American family. This was as true in 1957, when Eugene O'Neill won for Long Day's Journey into Night, as it was last year, when Tracy Letts picked it up for the Broadway hit August: Osage County.

Halfway along this timeline of American family drama lies Sam Shepard's highly symbolic 1979 winner Buried Child, set in a run-down Illinois farmhouse next to empty fields - a locale that encapsulates Yankee malaise as well now as it did at the cynical end of the seventies.

This NAC and Segal Theatre revival arrives at an interesting time: The Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which premiered the play, is teetering on the financial brink, while its playwright was arrested and charged with drunk driving last week while speeding through Normal, Ill.

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Director Peter Hinton's production shows the play in more robust condition than its creators; its wickedly funny dialogue and Midwestern Gothic mystique remain intact, even if themes and buried secrets now seem a bit overdone.

David Fox plays Dodge, the husk of a family patriarch who shares his name with popular American trucks and blame-avoidance manoeuvres. As he slowly dies on a green couch in front of a flickering television set, his wife Halie, played by Clare Coulter with theatrical detachment, spouts religious clichés unseen from the top of the stairs. When she's not out committing adultery with an ineffectual Protestant minister, that is.

Their grown children are Tilden (Randy Hughson), a one-time football star - "used to be an All-American," Dodge says, half proud, half contemptuous - whose life and mind fell apart after a family trauma; and Bradley (Alex Ivanovici), a raging impotent who sliced his own leg off in a chainsaw accident. The third son, Ansel, got the worst fate, or perhaps went out on top: He died on his honeymoon - if you believe Halie who wants the local town to erect a statue in his honour.

Ansel isn't the buried child of the title, however. There's another, unacknowledged in the soil out back, slowly rising to the surface as the heavy rains fall.

Arriving in this desiccated atmosphere is Tilden's son Vince (Christie Watson), who has stopped by after a six-year absence to introduce his L.A. girlfriend, Shelly (Adrienne Gould). Or at least we think he's Tilden's son - no one seems to recognize him when he arrives.

This is just one of the play's many strange, unsettling moments: Tilden keeps bringing loads of vegetables in from the supposedly barren fields; Bradley malevolently shaves his father's head in his sleep; Halie leaves the house in mourning clothes, but returns in a bright yellow dress.

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What does it all mean? Only the frightened outsider Shelly dares ask questions, but eventually even she settles down and finds "something familiar" about the place. She's the stand-in for the audience who will also recognize this American family even as Shepard keeps pulling the realistic rug out from under us.

Director Peter Hinton keeps a toe in naturalism, but otherwise lets his designers and actors roam madly off in expressionistic directions to varying effect. Eo Sharp's striking set, like rational meaning, appears only in slivers - the walls of the house looks like half-open Venetian blinds, or, when Robert Thomson's lighting blasts through, a television with the horizontal control off. Troy Slocum's soundscape, meanwhile, bubbles up with half-remembered sounds from the family's subconscious.

Buried Child is about a post-Vietnam America needing to confront its demons and generational change, but on a more straightforward level it's about the inevitability of family, the shackles of flesh and blood. The family here is equal part fearsome and funny - especially Fox's Dodge, who is weak and weary, but in some ways the feistiest of all. Fox's wheezy, wry performance keeps the whole show afloat.

Not everyone quite rises to his level of delivery. Hughson is, as always, entertaining, but his Tilden is problematic, occasionally slipping into a sarcastic delivery that implies a fiercer intelligence than the shell-shocked man-child has. He also dips into his familiar bag of physical tricks - walking in a circle with his arms out like a bird, giving a little kick at the end of a line - charming eccentricities that wear after repeated viewings.

Coulter seems to be operating off in her own Brechtian universe, while Watson struggles to find a place - his final speech about driving all night and watching his face turn into his father's and grandfather's in the rear-view mirror is especially flat.

Gould and Ivanovici have marvellously chilling anti-chemistry in a frightening act-closing scene of violation, though. In fact, all the big moments are there, well orchestrated by Hinton, who clearly relishes this play.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More


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