The idea of the American dream as a dim and ugly reality often seeps through the subtext of theater, but few plays do it with the same visceral trauma and frightening surrealism as Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Like David Lynch’s Mullholland Dr. or a good portion of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” series, any linear narrative or specific storyline fades into the background of a larger symbolic message. Lynch, for instance, begins Mullholland Dr. with the perky and innocent Betty, only to have her reappear halfway through the film as Diane, a suicidal, run-down mess. No logical explanation suffices. But you can at least make some symbolic sense of things—Diane could represent reality, perhaps, and Betty the Hollywood dream. Whatever your interpretation, it’s hard to take Lynch literally. And that’s the problem with Lynch—you never really know what’s going on. I love his work, but he tends to be something akin to an endearing alcoholic relative—his devotion to an AA-type clarity during a film’s first half collapses later under a hooch-induced downward spiral.
Which brings me to Shepard’s Buried Child. Even in all its alarming surrealism, even as each act burrows deeper into the realm of madness, this play seems to slowly reveal itself in all its symbolic representation as the myth of the wholesome American family. The current University of Montana production, directed by Ezra LeBank, festers in all the glory of a dark comedy. Comedy, yes, because it does make you laugh, but dark because every bit of laughter comes more from uneasiness.
Dodge, the patriarch of the family, languishes on the couch with cigarettes and whiskey waiting to die, it seems—a death conceived either through bad habits or by sheer exhaustion from the shrill voice of his wife, Halie, who belittles him, cheats on him and robs him of peace and quiet.
Halie, who is only a voice in the first act, swings her mood wildly from dramatic whimsy to knife-sharp disappointment to extreme grief for one of her sons—the football star, war hero and perfect child whose death seems to be one part of the family’s unraveling.
Tilden, a son who’s still alive, appears in the living room with ears of corn, unperturbed by Dodge’s adamant insistence that corn hasn’t grown in the backyard for decades. Tilden’s childlike demeanor seems like a mental disability but also as though he’s from another time or planet. And Bradley, the other son, stews in his own emasculation from having a prosthetic leg.
No one is right in the head. The farmhouse they live in crumbles around them. And all along, from the beginning, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the buried child part of the story to unearth itself. And it does, of course, both figuratively and literally.
Kurt Smith’s Dodge looks a bit like a dying John Malkovich. The portrayal—in his horrendous coughing and poisonous remarks—is a bull’s-eye of a man gone sour. Michelle Green plays Halie with muffled hysteria, so disconcerting that you’re afraid she might explode. Both gain momentum by the third act, where Halie actually appears and becomes even more off-kilter.
The real drama ensues when Tilden’s son, Vince, shows up. Up until then, the play seems like the story of a family gone mad, but perhaps not completely inhuman. But the family’s inability to recognize
or remember Vince sends Buried Child off into the realm of Mullholland Dr. or “The Twilight Zone.” Identity crisis be-comes literal. And when Vince begins to recognize himself in the faces of this dilapidated family, the transformation feels far from reality, more like the magic of an archetype fable.
Jim Badock plays Vince with an almost determined sadness, which easily descends into outrage and, finally, acceptance of his lot in life. Shelly, Vince’s city girlfriend, plays the archetypal outsider, the one the audience relates to because she reveals not only the secret but digs up the metaphorical dirt of the American family failure. And since every other character is two sandwiches short of a picnic, Shelly’s emergence provides some relief that someone’s finally there to call a spade a spade. Andreja Marie Bourke plays Shelly with solid street-smart defiance and natural mannerisms. In some ways, she’s almost like a character from a different story—an edgy HBO series, perhaps—suddenly plopped down into an allegory. Bourke plays up Shelly’s harsh humor—she makes fun of the country folk stereotype before finding it in disarray—without ever really losing the audience’s sympathies even if, under other circumstances, her rabbit coat and heavy makeup might indicate superficiality.
Mostly, the cast pulls off Buried Child with striking adeptness. At times, characters like Tilden (Pete Betcher) and Father Dewis (Adam Elliot) fade in the chaos, their moral and mental states so nebulous that they seem like whispers. But in all, the mysteries of why the play spirals further and further into absurdity clear up by the end into a picture of what happens when the American dream turns into a nightmare.
Buried Child continues at the Masquer Theatre inside UM’s PARTV Center Thursday, March 5, through Saturday, March 7, at 7:30 PM. $14.