Most of Sam Shepard’s plays consider the limits of manhood. The gruff, ornery men who populate his imagination are often broken in a way, hobbled by time and disappointment. They roam some dusty part of the American west, as unsure of themselves as they are of the way forward. They speak laconically, if at all, and they’ve got beef with their fathers. Even when the women are central, as objects of love or scorn, they remain peripheral. The objective of these plays is not to entertain, or even to offer some kind of catharsis. Rather, it is to deliver a brand of discomfort, like the feeling of gazing into a mirror in harsh light after a bad day.
“Buried Child”, the dark and perplexing play that won Shepard the Pulitzer prize in 1979, has just reopened in a powerful off-Broadway production from the New Group in New York, directed by Scott Elliott. Troubled families may be the life-blood of theatre, but few nuclear units appear to take as little pleasure in each other as this one.
The excellent and usually vigorous Ed Harris thoroughly disappears into Dodge, a withered old patriarch with an emphysemic cough, a sharp tongue and a mercurial temper. He is already on stage, on a couch under a blanket, as the audience files into their seats. It is rural Illinois in the 1970s, and the living-room set has a sepia-toned hue of coffee stains and broken dreams, with worn beige furniture and shabby wallpaper. The end table is covered in medicine bottles, but Dodge is far more interested in a bottle of whisky secreted under his couch cushion.
The play opens with Dodge’s wife Halie (a chilling Amy Madigan) nagging at him from off-stage to take his medicine. The two of them then continue to bellow at (or really past) each other while Halie remains “upstairs” and out of sight. The effect is disconcerting, not least because there is something noxious about their exchange: Halie is loudly prattling on about a fun time with “a wonderful man” from back before Dodge, while Dodge dismissively undercuts most of what she says between fortifying nips of booze. The prickly awkwardness of this extended moment, for both the characters and the audience, is a feeling Shepard manages to sustain for the full length of this delicately absurd play, which runs to 110 minutes without the release of an intermission.
Everything in this drama is just a bit off, a bit weird. Characters exchange words, but they never seem to be communicating. Nearly everyone is too haunted by something that happened in the past to see what is taking place before their eyes. Halie makes pious references to “God’s word”, but drones on cruelly about her disappointments with her three sons, even while the eldest, Tilden (a perfectly blunted Paul Sparks), sits in the room messily husking corn. Tilden has returned home to his parents after getting into some trouble in New Mexico (“I didn’t know where else to go”), but he can’t stand to be in a room with either one of them. Dodge resents Tilden for coming home, but also hates when he leaves the house. Bradley, the youngest son (Rich Sommer, quietly menacing), regularly lumbers through the house, yet he clearly loathes everyone in it. Ansel is the only son who managed to escape this emotional cesspit, but it seems he had to die in a motel room in order to do so.
The arrival of two visitors lends a more surreal flavour to this bitter brew. A young man in a leather jacket, Vince (Nat Wolff), turns up with his pretty girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga). They have driven all the way from New York, and are passing through town on their way to New Mexico to visit Tilden, who Vince says is his father. Full of nostalgic memories and apparently eager to see his family after years away, Vince is expecting a warm welcome, yet neither Tilden nor Dodge even recognise him. This snub is first bizarre, then embarrassing, then devastating. Something is not quite right with this family.
Shepard has made no secret of the fact that much of his work is an attempt to exorcise demons from his past. He fled his family’s California farm in 1963, but having a vicious alcoholic as a father left its mark. With “Buried Child” (which appears in a collection of plays dedicated to his father) he offers a profound meditation on the toxic power of blood. The members of this family are all helplessly drawn to each other, even as they do what they can to tear each other apart. They may not be able to stand one another, but they are too wounded to find comfort in anyone else.
Buried Child is at the Pershing Square Signature Center until April 3rd