All in the family

Brüka masterfully presents dysfunctional kin in Buried Child

Tilden (Scott Beers) talks as his dad (Tom Plunkett) tries to get comfy on the couch.

Tilden (Scott Beers) talks as his dad (Tom Plunkett) tries to get comfy on the couch.

Rated 5.0

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is a play to witness. When Brüka Theatre’s stage lights come on to reveal a bare, ratty front room in a farmhouse with nothing but a soiled loveseat, a TV on a milk crate and a table with all kinds of medicine on it, I thought, “This can’t be good,” and I felt it in my gut. Through the windows, one can see what’s beyond the walls—if fragments of drywall hanging off studs can be called walls. The porch outside is piled high with indiscernible junk.

Scrunched up like an accordion on the couch under a dirty, fuzzy blanket is Dodge, the patriarch. It’s painful to watch Dodge (Tom Plunkett), for all his facial expressions are winces, and Plunkett makes each labored breath appear to be a countdown to Dodge’s last. Plunkett perfects Dodge’s misery as he struggles to find comfort on the couch, which makes one wonder if Dodge has ever sat comfortably, has ever not scowled or has ever not searched behind the couch cushions for a bottle of whiskey.

Kathy Welch plays Dodge’s wife, Halie. From off stage, Halie carries on a conversation with Dodge in a voice that’s like nails on a chalkboard—a sharp, clear, piercing soprano. By the time she arrives on stage, dressed like a prim and proper country woman on her way to find salvation in the Protestant minister, one’s sympathy for Dodge on the couch couldn’t be greater.

This is not a happy home.

Meanwhile, their oldest son, Tilden (Scott Beers), comes in from the rain looking like he’s been dipped in dirt, carrying a dozen ears of corn in his arms. I couldn’t take my eyes off Scott Beers when he was on stage, nor could I stop the ache in my throat whenever he spoke: The depth and sorrow of Tilden’s character as portrayed by Beers was reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Tilden is dumb as a lump of coal—or is he just troubled by the hideous secret he’s been keeping? When Tilden shucks the corn, he talks of being lonely when he was away from his family; Dodge is unable to engage in a conversation with his son.

When Halie finally comes on stage, she belittles the already low-down Tilden. I hated that shrieking voice of hers, which makes everyone feel inferior to her. I hated her powerful little body, with her perfect posture in her church dress, velvet hat and gloves. I despised her for making Tilden’s countenance slump deeper into an angry frown. Welch was faultless in her role.

By then, I felt like I was invading some private, sickening family afternoon.

And so arrives Shelly (Jamie Plunkett), who does, in fact, act as interloper when she shows up with Vince (Scott Dundas), Tilden’s son, who hasn’t seen his family in years. Shelly is both vacuous and self-righteous, but Jamie Plunkett just didn’t have the right mix of the two. Her character is the device that gets the secret—the one that the family has made a pact not to discuss—out in the open.

When family members try to leave, they always return, or they die. When something or someone tries to breech its way into their family unit, they will banish it—dead or alive.

The cast does a great job performing this abstract exploration into the viscera of a family. We’re lucky to have work this heavy performed so well in Reno.