The controversy over whether or not art should be politically engaged has long been divisive. Theodore Adorno, the New York-based critic of modernism and pre-eminent figure in the Frankfurt School, argued that one of the defining features of 20th-century art has been its resistance to confronting social causes. Since Adorno's time, however, much artistic work has taken on social issues. Take, for instance, the difference between when Sam Shepard wrote his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child and its most recent New York production, by Nicu's Spoon. Shepard's plays often look at such matters as the decline of the American dream in oblique ways that do not superficially engage social problems. In interviews, he has notoriously undercut notions of "themes" or "agendas" and focused much more on the stories themselves. Buried Child is far more attuned to the story of the grief-stricken patriarch Dodge (Jim Williams), his religiously zealous wife Halie (Wynne Anders), and their misbegotten progeny—all of whom are in various states of denial and self-loathing—than it is concerned with Midwestern poverty or the mythic, forgotten West.
Yet the social issues are there, and Nicu's Spoon, a downtown company committed to producing socially relevant theater, has actively searched Buried Child for new points of entry. This production features a talented deaf actor, Darren Fudenske, playing his first speaking role as the man-child Tilden, oldest son of Dodge and Halie.
Clearly, raising a social issue is what Nicu's Spoon has done, as reported in a recent New York Times article on the controversy surrounding the production. Some in the deaf community have protested Fudenske's performance, saying it contributes to the perpetuation of the idea that deaf people have to speak instead of using American Sign Language. Fudenske, who does sign and has performed in productions where signing was the predominant form of communication, has defended his choice to portray Tilden as a victim of parenting that did not allow the use of sign language.
Other aspects of the production also reflect Nicu's Spoon's desire to diversify the traditional character list of white Midwesterners. It has cast both Dodge and his grandson Vince (Erwin Falcon) as Asian-Americans. As for the story line, it remains the grim portrait of a declining farm family: after the questionable death of his fourth son, Dodge has long since given up farming to resign himself to alcoholism and endless TV watching, while Halie has sought relief in religion and the hypocritical Father Dewis (Alvaro Sena). Their sons, Tilden and Bradley (David Marantz), have squandered their years in the long shadow of the family's shame. But a visit from Vince, Tilden's long-lost son, and his girlfriend Shelly (Wendy Clifford) could potentially change the dynamics of this suffering family.
Standout performances alone by some of the actors make this performance worth seeing. They include Fudenske, whose raw characterization and coarse voice bring to the surface the long-buried pain of a man who has lost his grip on reality as a result of the choices he has made. With his gruff demeanor and sharp tongue, Williams's Dodge readily displays the resignation of a man deeply disappointed by life. In scenes where other actors are onstage, their characters become secondary to the Oedipal tragicomedy between Williams and Fudenske. Even when some of Fudenske's words are incoherent, enough tension is brought about by his presence to make the audience feel ill at ease.
As Halie, Anders delivers a subtle performance but sometimes seems to miss the comedy inherent in the script. Sena's Father Dewis at times falls into a similar trap. Falcon comes on too strong as Vince, running over many of his lines in his constantly angry diatribes. Marantz, as the debilitated Bradley, shows his character's frustration but sometimes seems to lack the feeble menace Bradley attempts to exhibit.
The production's main problem is that it is not terribly funny. Shepard's play should be both terrible and humorous, and it should become all the more devastating at the end because of the humor throughout. But in this rendition, there are too many times where the humor is missed, and whether that was deliberate or unintentional, it makes some of the scenes seem longer than they really are, as written.
While Shepard's plays may not be the best choice for those wishing to produce socially conscious theater, Nicu's Spoon has successfully attempted to bring his work into the activist sphere by crossing the divide between art for art's sake and art that is politically aware.