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Review: Buried Child Still Packs a Creepy Wallop

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Buried Child Edge Theatre Company

Sam Shepard's Buried Child which won a Pulitzer in 1979, still carries a creepy wallop. The story of a violently dysfunctional family -- a drunken, abusive father who has destroyed his sons and is now being destroyed in return -- it was hailed as a depiction of the dark side of the American Dream. But while some of the themes are universal, this family is unique. See also: Best Theater Season 2014 -- Edge Theatre Company

There's father Dodge, coughing his lungs out on the sofa, wheedling, ordering or manipulating anyone in his orbit to buy him a bottle of whiskey. And his wife, Halie, mourning a lost son, Ansel, who died after marrying a Catholic woman about whom Halie has the darkest suspicions. Two of their sons still live. Tilden, once a promising athlete, is now an empty shell; although the family's fields have been barren for years, he periodically brings in armloads of corn that he insists he harvested outside. Bradley is filled with impotent rage that he can't act out because he once sawed off his own leg by accident and now can't get around without his wooden prosthesis. Into this swirl of madness enters Tilden's son, Vince, accompanied by his girlfriend, Shelly.

On one level, this sounds like a cheesy Hollywood chainsaw movie, complete with terrified girl, incest and rumors of murder, but of course Buried Child is more resonant and complex than that. The characters aren't stable in the way most people are; they morph unexpectedly. We fear for Shelly's safety when she's left alone with Dodge and Bradley -- after all, in her relative normalcy, she is a stand-in for us, the audience -- and then find that she's absorbed some of the family's ethos and become fearless, at least for a while. Bradley, deprived of his leg, is sometimes a figure of towering threat, sometimes a whimpering child. And Halie comes across at first as an ineffective babbler, but periodically as someone -- or something -- truly monstrous.

Images of fertility and decay persist, and the play is full of objects and movements that vibrate with a significance that can occasionally be articulated but more often only intuited: Shelly cutting up carrots while Tilden watches, mesmerized; Shelly's rabbit coat; a strength-destroying haircut; corn husks. When Vince first comes into the house, Dodge and Halie refuse to acknowledge him as their grandson; later, they both know exactly who he is. How are we to interpret this? Then there are the trademark Shepard monologues: His dialogue is always evocative and filled with interesting rhythms, but these monologues, while they explain nothing on a literal level, tend to carry his deeper meaning. For instance, when Vince returns, transformed, he describes driving through the rain, seeing his face in the windshield and watching it become that of a stranger, and then, "His face became his father's face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father's face changed to his grandfather's face. And it went on like that."

Shepard has said that, like Dodge, his own father was a violent alcoholic; perhaps this is why Dodge is in many ways the most compelling character. The man is sick, body and soul, but at first he seems like any fierce but defanged old crotchet, cursing his wife, abusing his sons. You don't even hate him entirely, because he's funny. It takes a while for the depths of his evil to manifest themselves. Dan Mundell plays all of this with wonderful expressiveness. Emma Messenger is intriguingly scary as Halie, impenetrable in her madness and changeability. I found Robert Kramer's blankly staring Tilden convincing, but would have liked to have sensed something more moving behind his eyes. Brian Landis Folkins starts off so heart-poundingly terrifying as Bradley that you're almost sorry to see him shorn of his power. Missy Moore is a dynamite Shelly, in weakness and in strength, and Royce Rosewood is very good as Vince, though the strange voice he adopts for his final scenes feels more horror-movie than real -- or necessary, since Vince's words and actions are frightening enough.

This is a well-cast and intriguing Edge Theatre production, but I would definitely question one decision by director Rick Bernstein: Why place Dodge entirely out of the audience's sight through most of the crucial concluding action?

Buried Child, presented by Edge Theater Company through November 16, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood. For more information, call 303-232-0363 or go to theedgetheatre.com.

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