The first act of Sam Shepard's play Buried Child might have you wondering if the playwright wrote his drama shortly after watching the cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At many points in Shepard's story, it seems as though an ectomorphic, sledgehammer-wielding psychopath might leap out of the shadows, screaming, "Hit her on the head, Grandpa, hit her on the head!"
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now being given a robust staging by CityStage Ensemble, actually eschews graphic violence, relying instead on what our imaginations can cook up while we observe a freakish clan that appears no stranger to intermarriage. Shepard's version of the stereotypical horror-film floozy, Shelly (C. Kelly Douglass), is never harmed in the play, though she narrowly avoids bodily injury by immobilizing her potential attacker: She con-fiscates the prosthetic device of Bradley (Christopher Leo), which is normally attached to his left leg. Having thereby limited his ability to chase her down, she further protects herself from the house full of crazies by cozying up to Dodge (Dan Hiester), a wheezing alcoholic who's also her boyfriend's grandfather. Her precautions will pay off later in the play when Dodge's wife, Halie (Petra Ulrych), returns from a church meeting on the arm of Father Dewis (Greg Ward), an entrance that occurs just as the chainsaws seem poised to saw apart the entire Illinois farmhouse.
Written long before plays about dysfunctional families became popular (and then quickly hackneyed), Shepard's drama revolves loosely around the attempts by Vince (Christopher Tabb) to reconnect with his family after a six-year absence. He has stopped by the farm to visit Dodge, his grandfather, not realizing that his own father, Tilden (Tom Hanna), has returned to the ramshackle house on the heels of some undisclosed "trouble" in New Mexico. Talking past one another, the characters grope about in the intimate space, and no one seems to recognize anyone else.
Vince gamely tries to jog their memories about who he is, but he succeeds only in compounding the household's collective confusion until he decides to mention the family secret. That brings the group into focus as nothing else can: Dodge, it seems, killed one of his newborn children and buried it in the backyard. This stunning revelation etches itself on our minds, and we remain transfixed for the remainder of the play as Shepard proceeds to eviscerate traditionally held beliefs about the American family.
Shepard's themes are presented in refreshingly coherent ways by director Laura Cuetara. The American dream is dead, the playwright suggests, and time-honored values have dropped into the abyss of oblivion. More to the point, we witness a family that cannot trust its own blood ties. And we are caught up with the characters in the web of familial decay as we watch each person grapple with relationships that latch on even tighter when someone attempts to break free of them.
Central to the success of the CityStage production are the insightful choices made by the acting company, which rescues a difficult play dealing with unpleasant material. Too often with Shepard's plays, less mature companies obliterate the playwright's poetry and subsequently alienate the audience by yelling and screaming the dialogue. Cuetara's accomplished ensemble, however, brings forth Shepard's lyricism through well-controlled, evenly modulated performances.
Hanna manages to charm us as the dim-witted Tilden, drawing us closer to a man who will innocently amble outside to discover if Dodge's story about the child murder is indeed true. His ability to win our affection pays off in the production's most powerful moment, when he returns from his backyard search to produce evidence of the old man's macabre tale.
Tabb remains credible as the character we take for the most normal of the bunch--until that moment in the drama when he, too, falls victim to the family sickness. As Shelly prods Vince to leave the hellhole where they have stayed longer than either of them would have preferred, he says he can't go, turning to her and uttering, "I gotta carry on the line."
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The play is not without its humor, which gives us a much-needed breath or two of fresh air before we're compelled once again to confront the family's demons. Leo executes a handful of delightful pratfalls, stumbling over the same front-porch step each time he enters the house. His episodes of black humor are perfect in a play that demands laughter to make its searing message bearable.
Hiester's constant wheezing is almost too much--we start to worry about the actor's, and not the character's, health. Beyond those exaggerated physical mannerisms, however, lies a well-crafted portrait of a man who perhaps bears the greatest responsibility for his family's current predicament. When he turns to another character and bellows, "You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring?" another of Shepard's themes hits home.
Enhanced in power and scope by Cuetara's overriding vision, this production of Shepard's twisted tale has an artistry that goes far beyond the effects of a tawdry horror film. Psychologi-cally speaking, it cuts to the bone.
Buried Child, through October 19 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.