At the start of the second act of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," a young couple wanders into a forlorn farmhouse. The girl looks at the gray, bare wood walls, a Depression-era washing machine, an overturned child's wagon and a moth-eaten sofa and declares, "It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something."
"It's American," says her boyfriend, whose grandparents' home this is.
Shepard's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 (and which the playwright has substantially revised for this stunning Steppenwolf revival), is a very '70s look at America.
The reference to Rockwell, of course, is ironic. Shepard's vision is closer to the subversive style of cartoonist R. Crumb.
There are other "American" references. The boy's father, we learn, "used to be an All-America fullback or quarterback . . . a big deal, wore a letterman's sweater." Now, however, he's clearly all but brain-dead.
There is a dark family secret, but it is less a response to that than some inexplicable inevitability that turns all the men into emotional zombies. The young man who has brought his girlfriend for a family visit ends up as much a robot as his all-American dad.
"Buried Child" has many antecedents, among them Pinter's "The Homecoming," especially when the young woman introduced to the grotesque family is humiliated by one of its men.
By comparison, "Buried Child," with its stereotyped, cartoon characters, is adolescent. If its sense of humor is that of teenagers, it also has an adolescent's primal, raw energy. And that is what this production, directed by Gary Sinise, conveys in abundance.
It is apparent the moment the lights come up on James Gammon as the patriarch of this gruesome clan. Wearing an idiotic smile, his vocal cords sandpapered by years of cheap liquor, Gammon is a goony wreck of a man.
Hearing the acid voice of Lois Smith as his nagging wife, we understand his plight. We also understand why the all-American boy who has come back to live with them has been reduced to the sullen vacancy of Terry Kinney.
Jim True has tremendous vitality as the grandson. As his girlfriend, Kellie Overbey grows beautifully into the wacky sensibility the house engenders. Leo Burmester and Jim Mohr are strong as a crippled son and a dithering minister.
The surface of the play may be simplistic, but the production captures its subterranean power.
Surprise. Although Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" won its Pulitzer in 1979, it was not until last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater that, in a new staging by Gary Sinise and hailing from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, it made its obviously long overdue Broadway debut, as did the playwright himself.
"Buried Child" is a gothic farce, situated in a strange territory bounded by the likes of "Tobacco Road," Greek tragedy and "Alice in Wonderland." Not to mention fringing on a little psychology from Krafft-Ebing, with perhaps a tincture of anthropology from "The Golden Bough."
Having said that, let's stress that it is one of Shepard's most accessible plays. Except for the inner meaning of that eponymous buried child - and even this may, in Tallulah Bankhead's memorable phrase, have 'less in it than meets the eye."
The play shows a prodigal grandson, seemingly unremembered by his family, paying his old Illinois homestead a visit, accompanied by his girlfriend. He intrudes upon a scene of domestic disaster exacerbated by a mixture of amnesia and symbolism.
There is Grandpa, slouched, fat but deflated, baseball cap askew, swigging from his whiskey bottle, accustomed to fending off the shrill diatribe of Grandma from an upper room, and his two sons, one of them the boy's father, who brings corn and carrots from what we are told - symbolism moving into gear and left field - is the barren backyward.
By the end, the returning prodigal, finally recognized, has been given the farm by Grandpa with his dying breath, and lost his girl. At curtain fall, his father walks on, bearing the muddied and decayed corpse of a once buried child. Bingo!
What it all means specifically I have no idea. There are hints of family ties and blood, suggestions perhaps of incest, of dark secrets, murky betrayals, black tragedies and rootless roots. And a clash of symbols any military band would be proud to parade.
Far less mystifying is the language. It holds your attention like a vise, is wildly funny (are we laughing with it, at it, or both?) and, if you take the play as transmogrified horror fiction and just relax, you'll have a good time.
Sinise has performed wonders, making Shepard's elusive text crackle with manic life and maniac laughter, and has been helped by the evocatively decaying homestead setting by Robert Brill.
The cast proves a superb ensemble, although I must specially single out James Gammon as the decrepit patriarch and Lois Smith as his blowsy cohort.
As for the play...well, it lingers with you like the scent of strange poetry, or the taste of strident radishes. It won't be easily forgotten the next morning. Or perhaps not the next year.
Children do grow up in the most unexpected ways, even, it would seem, a certain dead baby beneath an Illinois farm yard. Seeing the Steppenwolf Theater Company's inspired revival of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, you may find yourself thinking, "My, how big you've gotten."
That isn't just because this new, dazzlingly acted production, which once seemed to represent the very essence of Off Broadway cool, comfortably fills a big Broadway stage. This fierce testimony to the theory that you really can't go home again (and if you try, be prepared for the consequences) actually appears to have grown more resonant, funnier and far more accessible in the 17 years since it won the Pulitzer Prize.
In the late 1970's, Mr. Shepard was deeply fashionable, everyone's favorite crossover from the avant-garde. But like all golden boys, he eventually began to tarnish in his public's mind. There was a backlash of feeling that identified him as a relic of a chapter in experimental theater, saturated in symbolism, willfully obscure and given to bashing the American Dream with two heavy hands.
Stuff and nonsense. In this exuberant staging by Gary Sinise, "Buried Child" emerges as a play for the ages, no more confined to the moment in which it was conceived than such works with similar themes as Harold Pinter's "Homecoming" or Edward Albee's "Delicate Balance."
The presence of Mr. Albee's play on Broadway in the acclaimed Lincoln Center revival makes this a happy season for unhappy families. Mr. Albee's bitingly elegant sophisticates in "Balance" may seem to have little in common with Mr. Shepard's down-and-dirty rural folk.
But it's worth noting that both plays are haunted by the specter of a dead infant and portray grown-up children limping back to the nest. More important, the two playwrights share a gift that guarantees the survival of their work: a rhythmic sense of speech and imagery that finds the dark, scary poetry behind every domestic arrangement.
In many ways, the experience of Vince (Jim True), the young man in "Buried Child," is that of everyone who goes back to the family fold after a long absence. To some degree the play shares the sensibility of the stories that college students, who are just beginning to see the world they grew up in with some distance, often tell each other: the "my family is weirder than yours" anecdotes that occupy long nights in dormitories.
Mr. Shepard takes that perspective further to locate a chilling paradox: even as the characters in "Buried Child" are inextricably bound to each other by shared histories and dark secrets, they are also irretrievably alone. The long-married Halie and Dodge (Lois Smith and James Gammon), the decrepit matriarch and patriarch, begin the play with a hilariously weary quarrel they seem to have been having forever. But while they speak the same language, they don't really hear each other.
And when Vince first appears, Dodge, his grandfather, and Tilden (Terry Kinney), Vince's dim-witted hulk of a father, don't recognize him. Dodge further insists that his other son, the one-legged, cretinous Bradley (Leo Burmester), doesn't belong with them, but then Dodge himself tends to get lost in the house's halls. Actually, the only person who says she feels at home in the place is Vince's girlfriend, Shelly (Kellie Overbey), and she's never been there before. The idea of the sanctuary of home is clearly, to borrow another title of Mr. Shepard's, a lie of the mind.
It all sounds kind of metaphysical, doesn't it? But watching this production is a startlingly visceral experience. Mr. Sinise and his excellent cast and design team have deliciously scaled up the play's Gothic side. Mr. Shepard's revisions of his original script illuminate both the thematic content and the flat-out funny absurdity. (The new quibbles over semantics -- like Dodge's "Scream? Men don't scream" -- are priceless.)
Robert Brill's decaying, screened-in living room, with walls that seem to climb to the heavens and a long, sinister staircase, really is a place to get lost in. This is a house that devours its inhabitants, like the spooky mansions in horror movies. The feeling is underscored by the punctuation of lightning and thunder. (The lighting and sound are by Kevin Rigdon and Rob Milburn).
The cast, all but two of whom appeared in the production earlier this season in Chicago, is close to perfection, at once grotesquely surreal and as prosaic as a Walker Evans photograph. Ms. Smith and Mr. Gammon are magnificent, giving comic gargoyles the stature of figures in Greek tragedy. They are obscenely funny, yet when their characters touch on the black secret of their family's past, they exude a real, fathomless anguish.
Mr. Gammon's Dodge is the play's rotting center, a rasping, barking old man whose voice seems to come from a terminal, decades-old cough. Even though he mostly remains stationary beneath a stiff, filthy blanket, he seems to be everywhere on the stage. Ms. Smith, a bizarre counterpoint of ladylike hand gestures and a lewd, wide-legged, pelvis-forward walk, is equally stunning. She shifts unflinchingly from pious homilies about the decline of manners to raucous physical slapstick.
In Chicago, Ted Levine's pathetic Tilden, the guy who keeps bringing in armfuls of vegetables from the supposedly barren backyard, was so good as to seem irreplaceable. But Mr. Kinney makes the part his own with an eerie, centered quietness and a heartbreaking vulnerability. (His high, gleaming forehead comes to seem like a target.) And Mr. Burmester is as good as ever as the satanic bully who can turn instantly into a sobbing brat.
Ms. Overbey has definitely improved on her Chicago performance, and she now holds her own, using a comically shrill shrewdness. And Jim Mohr brings wonderful deadpan timing to his small but telling role as a visiting minister.
The replacement of Ethan Hawke by Mr. True is a mixed blessing. Mr. True is fine in the play's second act, as the outraged young man in search of reassurance. But he's not comfortable yet with Vince's savage metamorphosis in the third act, and his concluding monologue -- in which he speaks of seeing his face dissolve into those of his ancestors -- has the stiffness of an audition piece.
This is unfortunate, since the uncertainty of identity is the key to "Buried Child." But otherwise the theme is beautifully realized: in the ways in which the characters keep trying to find their images in a fragment of a broken mirror; in Ms. Smith's astonishing, unexplained change of appearance between the first and third acts.
"Buried Child" operates successfully on so many levels that you get dizzy watching it. It has the intangible spookiness of nightmares about home and dispossession, yet it involves you in its tawdry, mystery-driven plot with the old-fashioned verve of an Erskine Caldwell novel.
Great plays always exist on more than one level, of course, something of which the American dramas on Broadway have too rarely reminded us in recent years. It is remarkable to realize that this production is Mr. Shepard's Broadway debut. His presence there, along with that of Mr. Albee after a long exile, hearteningly suggests that the Great White Way, after an extended second childhood of musical revivals and frothy comedies, may be ready to grow up again.
Though "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, it's only now getting a Broadway outing. As odd as it may seem for those with vivid memories of the play's San Francisco debut or its subsequent Off Broadway stagings, Gary Sinise's Steppenwolf Theater Co. production delivers a jolt, though not necessarily a good one. Staged as a balancing act between portentous symbolism and high-energy burlesque, this "Buried Child" too often sounds like a Shepard parody, a sister act to "A Sty of the Eye," Christopher Durang's bruising spoof of the playwright.
The show arrives backed by a small mob of producers and the lowered costs of the Broadway Alliance to give it a fighting chance. But the play and the production seem oddly dated, and without the star draw of Ethan Hawke - who opened in the Chicago premiere last fall but has since departed - it's going to have a tough time finding an audience.
The middle work in Shepard's trilogy painting the American family as your basic lost cause ("Curse of the Starving Class" preceded it, "True West" followed), "Buried Child" echoes Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee. When Vince (Jim True) and his girlfriend, Shelly (Kellie Overbey), show up at his grandparents' dilapidated Central Illinois farmhouse, no one recognizes him - neither grandfather, Dodge (James Gammon), a boozing crank obsessed with TV sports, nor his lurid grandmother, Halie (Lois Smith). Not even Vince's father Tilden (Terry Kinney), whom the young couple expected to encounter, knows who he is.
But something very strange is going on in this household, which is signaled from the outset by the ominous moan of a bass saxophone and the eerie flicker of light from an old TV that marks the curtain rise, as a thunderstorm picks up behind it all.
The play begins as Dodge argues with the unseen Halie, upstairs dressing for an assignation with the preacher, Father Dewis (Jim Mohr). Enter Tilden, a lumbering giant in mud-encrusted overalls, his arms full of corn he claims to have picked from the yard. Dodge insists that nothing's grown out back in 35 years, but Tilden describes a field abundant with carrots, potatoes "and corn as far as the eye can see." In a long monologue, Halie recalls Tilden's promise as the eldest of their three sons, an All-American football player whose life took a wrong turn somewhere.
Then again, it did so as well for middle son Bradley (Leo Burmester), until he chopped off his own leg with a chain saw, and youngest son Ansel, who apparently died as retribution for marrying a Catholic girl, or so Halie would have it.
There are intimations of a murdered baby, of incest and of a Terrible Secret (not to mention more vegetables) that unite this disaster of a family, whose precarious equilibrium Vince and Shelly's intrusion threatens to destroy. By the end, however, Vince has confronted fate in this sordid, violent place, ascending to a Dodge-like dominance of it.
"Buried Child" is the work of a writer who grew up rootless in an America that revealed nothing but disdain for the past. Until "Curse of the Starving Class," his home was in Off Off Broadway theaters and his plays were marked by vibrant, propulsive riffs on American identity - plays that merged rock n' roll energy with Beat nihilism and humor.
But Shepard's vision of the American family was essentially blighted, and these later plays are filled with deserting parents who cannot improve their fortunes, murderous siblings who cannot dodge destiny, and children whose wreckage is in the genes.
The plays are fairly claustrophobic; the tiny stage of the original productions of "Buried Child" at the Magic Theater in San Francisco and Off Off Broadway's Theater for the New City was dominated by a ratty couch and a small stairway to Halie's room. The couch and stairway still dominate, but here the couch is dwarfed by the towering walls of the farmhouse, which reach practically to the proscenium of the Brooks Atkinson theater, as does that stairway.
The performances are outsized as well. Gammon - who was enormously impressive in Shepard's most recent play, "Simpatico" - speaks every line in a wheezy, rasping bark that soon grows tiring. On the other hand, Kinney, that consummate Steppenwolf actor, is the right size for Tilden, but the performance is flat; Tilden's a heartbroken wreck, not a lobotomy victim.
True is all right as Vince, but Overbey is overwhelmed by Shelly, a smartass who knows a bad scene when she sees one but comes across as somewhat insipid. Burmester strikes a blustery one-note as the bullying Bradley that doesn't quite capture the menace or the vulnerability of the role.
Best are Smith, a Steppenwolf regular who strikes just the right tone as Halie, the mother-whore, and Mohr as the preacher who clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into.
While the vast set illustrates the production's wrong-headedness, Kevin Rigdon's lighting and Allison Reeds' costumes go a long way in establishing a more realistic environment.
Shepard has done some tinkering with the script, though I think not as much as advertised. When Halie returns in act three with Dewis, her white hair has returned to the flaming red of her youth. Shelly announces herself as a vegetarian at the beginning of act two, which is rendered somewhat suspect by her casual drinking of a cup of beef bouillon in act three.
"Buried Child" bristles with its own eccentric humor, much of which is at least in evidence here. Yet the play is overwhelmed by the imposing spectacle of this production, and its black heart has been obscured. The result, to invoke Dodge's prescient description of Vince and Shelly, is "something not compatible - like chalk and cheese."