The life of a momentous work of theater generally runs as follows: first, the work is a bombshell exploded in the art scene; after initial, tense resistance from the mainstream, it is then lauded and subsumed by the very people who originally dismissed it; finally, the work becomes so ubiquitous that, when restaged with no additional artistic bells and whistles (such as a directorial "concept"), it seems very much like a parody of itself. For all its virtues, the most lasting impression I carried away from the Michael Chekhov Theater Company's production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child is that Shepard's most well-known play may now be edging into the third, self-satirizing phase of its life cycle. Shepard has been referred to as the "poet laureate of America's emotional Badlands." Buried Child is no aberration in the oeuvre; the work is, arguably, one of its pinnacles. (Just ask the Pulitzer committee, which awarded it the prize for drama in 1979.) The setting is the decaying farmhouse of an Illinois family. Dodge (Thomas Francis Murphy), the salty patriarch, is largely confined to the living room couch by an unnamed illness. He is cared for—in the loosest sense of the term—by his wife, Halie (Patricia Elisar), and their two sons, the emotionally crippled Tilden (Tom Pavey), and the one-legged, bullying Bradley (Brian Lee Elder).
The fun begins with the arrival of Vince (Jason Griffith) and his girlfriend Shelly (Kristin Carter), Greenwich Village types on a trip away from the city (New York is never named, though it doesn't need to be). Vince claims he is Tilden's son. Much to both his and Shelly's chagrin, however, no one in the house recognizes him. It seems the decay is not limited to the walls around them; a secret has been rotting the foundation of the family itself. When Vince leaves Shelly alone in order to buy Dodge a bottle of whiskey—a futile attempt to get in the elder's good graces—she takes it on herself to uncover exactly what is sour at the heart of this particular American Gothic.
As with all but the best mysteries, the pursuit of the truth in this case is more engaging than what is eventually uncovered. Indeed, if the secret in question weren't handled so elliptically, a case could be made that it borders on being offensively stereotypical of the worst of rural America. Shepard deals in symbols, though—he is our most accomplished purveyor of stage image as metaphor—and not, generally, in outright social commentary. So I will refrain from reading too much into his devices, and rather take him at his word.
Which is exactly what the Michael Chekhov Theater Company does as well. The show fits comfortably in the limited room of the half-accurately named Big Little Theater. (In his curtain speech, the acting house manager described the space as a "postage stamp"; to credit his observation, taking your seat is indeed a little like seeing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.) Like nearly everything else involved in the production, the skill with which such a large show—three or four characters are almost always onstage—is shoehorned into such a diminutive theater speaks to the company's extreme competence.
But this competence never takes wing into inspiration. Though each cast member turns in an unimpeachable performance—Murphy as the gruff Dodge and Carter as the beleaguered but otherwise normal Shelly, especially—the overall effect is similar to viewing a print of a famous painting in place of the vibrant original. Unstraying faith to the word of such a well-established work of art, it seems, comes at the cost of a fresh encounter with the work's spirit.
In all fairness, there is no blackly critical finger to be leveled at the company's efforts. They do Buried Child the honor of letting it speak for itself. Unfortunately, what the work seems to be saying at the moment is "reinvent me, or let me rest."