Sam Shepard Rodgers Jr.'s father arrived home from World War II with shrapnel lodged in his neck. Junior was an Army brat; his father, a nomad who moved his family from Illinois corn country to the Badlands to rainy Guam to the balmy weather of Southern California. Sunshine and happiness didn't suit the old man. Instead, he just wandered off one day to live alone in the arid desert of New Mexico, where he eventually burned to death and became the land. Still a teenager, Junior decided to leave town and hitched up with a troupe of traveling actors performing in churches, then hit the road to New York City. There, he dropped his family name and took to jazz and rock 'n' roll, bussing tables, playing cowboy, and writing crazy plays.
Buried Child, for which he received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, is not one of Shepard's crazier dramas; it is, rather, a drama about the impulses of craziness that well up when family skeletons are repressed. In the words of director and longtime Shepard interpreter Cyndy Marion, it is "structurally his finest play." The mythic bronco bucking of Shepard's early works—with their jagged and jazzy improvisations—is here harnessed with a mature guile and a mastery of form.
In Buried Child, Shepard lays a slow fuse of narrative to ignite the spontaneous, combustible images of his early plays. The psychological and symbolic impact is more profound than a random fireworks display. The bitterness and betrayals exchanged between fathers and sons are given an eloquent and excoriatingly rigorous expression.
As the play begins, an old man named Dodge is harassed by his wife yammering from the next room. Dodge's aging son, Tilden, brings in corn and husks it. Something is amiss: there hasn't been corn outside for years.
Vince, Tilden's son, arrives at the house with his big-city girlfriend, Shelly. No one in the family claims to recognize him. Vince drives off to fetch Dodge a bottle of whiskey, leaving Shelly behind to fend for herself amid his messed-up, madcap relatives. Bradley, Tilden's brother with a wooden leg, nearly rapes her.
The next morning, Dodge's wife viciously attacks everyone in sight. Only Shelly has the nerve to stand up to her. But the family members refuse to acknowledge Shelly—as if she were the surrogate for the audience members, who are powerless interlopers in this violent family romance. Dodge, perhaps impelled by Shelly's boldness and recognizing his own impending death, unleashes the family's secret—the buried child.
Vince comes staggering back, smashing beer bottles on the porch as if they were hand grenades. Now it's Vince who can barely recognize his family; Shelly who's not sure who he is. It's as if Vince, climbing through the porch screen ripped open with a knife, is the buried child, exhumed and birthed from a new womb.
Dodge, before dying, cedes Vince the house. In doing so, Vince's epiphany during his nightlong drive—that his "face became his father's face, and his father's face changed to his grandfather's face"—is given dramatic truth. Vince begins to resume the same posture Dodge had on the couch in the play's beginning, curling up like a crumpled fetus.
The sudden transformations at the play's finale do not feel forced, which is a triumph both of Shepard's writing and the control with which the cast members portray their characters. They do so with a stark realistic edge and generous amounts of dark humor in the midst of madness.
Paralyzed, impotent, emasculated, and put upon, the males in this drama are all losers and loners, formless half-wits and former halfbacks, invisible and dead to the world in one way or another. Yet while each reflects the others in a sort of shattered hologram, each has a peculiar isolation all his own.
Rod Sweitzer as Tilden mesmerizes with his eerie, autistic stare. Bill Rowley as Dodge manages to give complex shadings to his character, who can go from a mean ol' cuss to a surprisingly sympathetic man beaten down by life in his second childhood. Likewise, Ginger Kroll as Shelly gains our affection despite her first impression as a stuck-up big-city girl. Chris Stetson as Vince displays both the swagger and vulnerability necessary for the role.
Like the painting of a whitewashed farmhouse half buried under rows of overgrown corn, which hangs from the set's wall, this profoundly moving production of Buried Child reveals uncanny levels of significance underlying a seemingly innocuous portrait of an American family.