Temple Repertory Theater goes to the dark side with a Pulitzer Prize-winning mystery.
Temple Repertory Theater provides an alternative to the diversionary fare on most local stages with the company’s dark, nervy production of Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Buried Child.
Shepard sets his tale in the living room of a family farm in Illinois, where the father, Dodge (Gregg Almquist), is ill and spends his time in front of a small TV drinking, smoking and taking his medication. “Are we still in the land of the living?” he shouts to his wife, Halie (Nancy Boykin). It’s a reasonable question. Corpses have looked more vigorous than the pale Dodge, who hasn’t budged from his sofa perch in years. Halie is considerably more active; at the moment she is prettying herself up for a night out with her boyfriend. Dodge doesn’t expect she’ll return for days and he doesn’t much care. The marriage fell apart long ago—all that remains are their two sons and a dark secret buried in the backyard.
When we first meet their strangely quiet eldest son Tilden (Rob Kahn—currently starring as the smooth-talking title character in TRT’s production of Tartuffe—gives an oddly touching performance as the vacant and vulnerable man-child), he is bringing in armfuls of vegetables that he says are growing in the field. Dodge is surprised; according to him the land has been barren for years. An all-American football player in school, the now adult Tilden encountered “trouble” in New Mexico and was forced to return home. Another son, the menacing, one-legged Bradley (Steve Kuhel), lives nearby. A third brother, Ansel, died mysteriously (a lot of things happen mysteriously in Buried Child). Halie reports that Ansel was a war hero and a basketball star. We’re not certain however if anything the characters say is true, including a vague reference to a baby that may have been murdered by Dodge and buried on the property.
It is not unusual for a playwright to raise a number of questions in a play’s first act—and Buried Child is full of them. Is there really a dead child in the yard? What happened to Tilden in New Mexico? What exactly caused the disintegration of Halie’s and Dodge’s marriage? Usually, the second act is when playwrights reveal all. In Buried Child, however, Act II only brings more questions with the arrival of a grandson, Vince (Julian Cloud), and his girlfriend, Shelly (Jasmine St. Clair). At first it appears that the seemingly well-adjusted young couple will establish some sense of normalcy in this bizarrely dysfunctional home. Vince is on his way to New Mexico to reconnect with his father, Tilden, and has just dropped by to say hi. But neither Dodge nor Tilden seems to recognize him. Are they lying? Is Vince in the wrong home?
It’s clear that the family is guarding a horrible secret, but Shepard isn’t offering us any easy answers to the mystery. There is a suggestion that the buried child may have been a product of incest, but the exact details remain unclear.
To his credit, Director Dan Kern doesn’t impose his interpretation of the play on us, preferring instead to allow us to draw our own conclusions. A challenging play filled with disturbing and provocative imagery, Buried Child won’t appeal to everyone. But if you’re looking for a serious drama in a summer dominated by Shakespeare and light, frothy comedies, Buried Child offers its own strange rewards.
Through July 31. $20-$25. Randall Theater, 2020 N. 13th St. 215.204.1334. temple.edu/theater
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