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The funniest comedy in Philadelphia just opened at the Latvian Society Theater, where riotous ripples of laughter practically echo out onto Spring Garden Street. The author? Sam Shepard.
Yes, you read that right. The rollicking, almost athletically energetic play on stage is actually Buried Child, Shepard’s ruminative, pitch-dark exploration of the American family’s erosion. The production opens a season at EgoPo Classic Theater dedicated to the works of the late master, who died in 2017.
An unrecognizable clan
Yet under Dane Eissler’s frenetic direction, the tragically self-destructive clan of Illinois farmers are rendered unrecognizable to what Shepard actually wrote, as they careen between boulevard broadness, television sitcom, and genuine farce. Buried Child is a tough nut to crack, neither strict realism nor straight entertainment, and the material can often seem arch. Eissler’s staging is not without ideas. Some work, some don’t. Some emerge more fully formed than others. But the end result offers little sense of a cohesive vision—and that problem breeds down to the performances and the physical production, as well.
Much of Buried Child is very funny in its own way, which is not humor of the knee-slapping variety. Shepard’s tonal ambiguity—light and airy one moment, pregnant with tension the next—manifests itself most clearly in the opening moments. Dodge (Damien J. Wallace), living with emphysema and alcoholism, is harangued by his unseen wife, Halie (Cathy Simpson), who unloads her every frustration while perched above his head on a landing. (Talk about the dark at the top of the stairs!) You sense that this conversation has been unspooling ad infinitum for half a century or more, and you feel a lifetime of exasperation welling up behind Wallace’s sunken, hollow eyes.
The subjects Halie covers may strike the listener as quotidian, but the meat of Shepard’s worldview lies behind the banality. Anger, betrayal, shattered hopes, misplaced trust, and the failure of parents and children alike: it’s all there. Although Simpson sometimes seemed overly tentative on opening night, and didn’t always convey a firm grasp of her lines, she occasionally lobbed a fastball that struck straight to the heart of the playwright’s ethos. But this promising beginning quickly gave way to a series of choices that left me with more questions than answers.
What exactly is wrong with Tilden, the family’s oldest son, played here with a general placidity by Walter DeShields? Is he a simpleminded man-child, like Lennie from Of Mice and Men? (DeShields’s performance sometimes suggests this.) Or is he a menace, returned from a self-imposed exile in New Mexico to wreak havoc on his parents’ lives? And why does he keep showing up bearing armloads of vegetables? Shepard’s stage directions describe Tilden as “profoundly burned out and displaced.” At most here, he seems mildly drunk.
The arrival of Vince (Mark Christie), Tilden’s long-estranged son, and his girlfriend Shelly (Merci Lyons-Cox), always throws the play into a tailspin. In a way, Shepard is riffing on Pinter’s The Homecoming, where the return of a prodigal son disturbingly and irrevocably upends a family dynamic. Yet he also imbues a fair amount of Beckett in these characters, whose purposes and intentions are never really clear. Here, the appearance sets things into full sitcom mode, particularly since Christie (with limbs flailing everywhere) and Lyons-Cox (too overtly crass) offer the least nuanced characterizations of the cast. But in their coming, Eissler mostly abandons his promising beginnings and settles for a road to denouement that elides the play’s chilling subtextual questions in favor of easy laughs.
The women are the play’s prime movers, as the men surrounding them grow progressively helpless, but there is scant sense of that here. This is due, at least in part, to performances from Simpson and Lyons-Cox that grow ever more outsized. (Their costumes, by Jamie-Grace Duff, are also both a bit too winkingly suggestive—Halie changes from a widow-like black church dress to a girlish floral print as Dodge’s impending death grows more evident, and Shelly looks like a Valley Girl.) I never felt the control they should exert over the situation.
Written as a three-act play, the action is present here with one intermission coming between the second and third acts. The second half of the evening ushers in a wave of physical comedy that pushes the proceedings past a point of no return. Escapades featuring the prosthetic leg worn by Bradley, the family’s second son (played by an otherwise effective Carlo Campbell), verge on prop comedy. The interloping Father Dewis (Davey Strattan White), who may or may not be sleeping with Halie, seems like a stereotypical tipsy parson, not the chaos agent Shepard conceives. Christie’s Vince returns from a bender not scarily drunk, but simply petulant.
The initial possibilities seem a distant memory by this point.
Open to interpretation
Colin McIlvaine’s scenic design comes the closest to realizing the right unsettling aura. With rotting walls and piles of dirt threatening to overwhelm the living area, the aesthetic makes it clear that this is not a happy home. Molly Jo’s lighting often sets an appropriately spectral tone—though a few flashy effects near the end of the production, underscored by Chris Sannino’s self-consciously spooky sound design, drive some of the destructive points home a bit too forcefully.
Shepard as a playwright is certainly open to interpretation, and EgoPo—one of Philly’s most inventive companies—will surely come up with intriguing scenarios for their forthcoming productions of Fool For Love and Curse of the Starving Class. And even in its frequent incomprehension, this Buried Child is rarely boring. Its meaning and intent, however, are deeply buried.
What, When, Where
Buried Child. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Dane Eissler. EgoPo Classic Theater. Through November 10, 2019, at the Latvian Society Theater, 531 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
The Latvian Society Theater is not an ADA-compliant venue. There is a chair lift on the main staircase leading to the theater space, which is on the building’s second floor, but it may not be accessible to all patrons. Patrons with questions about accessibility should contact EgoPo staff before purchasing tickets.
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