Dig up the dirt
I won’t lie: I walked out at the end of Reno Little Theater’s production of Buried Child wondering, “What the hell just happened?”
It’s not RLT’s fault. Playwright Sam Shepard intentionally crafted this dark tale so that his audience would scratch their heads and puzzle infinitely over its unanswerable questions.
What RLT has done with Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, though, is to deftly create a chilling atmosphere, and develop characters who each get a chance to make us laugh, evoke our sympathy, piss us off and terrify the hell out of us.
Set in an Illinois farm house, it’s a story that’s hard to describe, partly because to do so would spoil too much for you, and partly because it defies description. It’s a story of a deeply dysfunctional family during the rural economic slowdown of the late 1970s.
In its deceptively funny first act, a grizzled, wise-cracking Dodge (played by acting veteran Blair Anthony) lies on a filthy, uninviting couch under a grungy blanket. The sound of rain seems to batter the house and seep into the room, adding to the dank, dirty atmosphere. His wife, Halie (Terri Gray), calls various accusatory and inane questions to Dodge from upstairs, while he sneaks swigs from a bottle of whiskey.
Early on, several premises are quickly established: 1) Dodge is clearly an alcoholic; 2) he and Halie had three sons—Tilden, Bradly and Ansel; 3) Ansel, the favorite, was apparently murdered by his Catholic wife in a hotel room, though the details on that are sketchy at best; 4) Bradly (Corey Cicci) is a veteran, a kook and an amputee, having cut off his own leg with a chainsaw; and 5) Halie has a bit of a whore/saint duality going on.
As the story begins to progress, we see Halie all dolled up for her “meeting” with Father Dewis (Rob Shader) to plan a statue memorializing Ansel. Their eldest son, Tilden (Chris Taylor), who clearly has a mental handicap of some sort, somehow manages to find a wealth of crops from farmland that Dodge and Halie insist hasn’t been sown since the ’30s.
Tilden has sown something else, too—a son named Vince (Drew Shafer) who stops in with his girlfriend, Shelly (Anna Pidlypchak), for a visit at his grandparents’ house. What they discover there is a madhouse full of horrible people who’ve done unspeakable things. And when the final, terrible secret is revealed, you’re left asking the person next to you, “Wait a minute, did I just hear what I think I heard?”
Performance-wise, Pidlypchak’s Shelly seemed abrasive, despite needing to be the realistic lens through which we view this bizarre home. Although Shepard’s characters are complex and hard to like, I still felt that a few of the performances were awkward and stiff.
Nonetheless, Anthony’s Dodge is corpse-like and repugnant—as he should be—and yet somehow captivating. And Chris Taylor offers an authentic portrayal of mental illness, making Tilden both lovable and creepy. His final appearance on stage isn’t something you’re likely to forget.
Several themes emerge here, including the disparity between American life and the American Dream, the idea that history repeats itself, and the way identity can be both separate from and linked to family. You’re forced to consider which evil is worse: the instant and violent, or the silent and insidious.
You’ll likely wind up feeling like I did—that there are more questions raised than answered.