Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer-Prize winning Buried Child grapples with loss: loss of the ideal, loss of the American Dream, loss of innocence. And in Shattered Globe’s extremely volatile production, these emotions slowly bubble up to the surface until they explode in a fury of broken beer bottles, shredded window screens and a dismembered Victorian sofa.
Director Steve Scott has delivered an intimate, uncomfortable production, focusing on the pain, anger and disempowerment of a secretly dysfunctional family. And on Kevin Hagan’s claustrophobic and eerily deteriorating set, you are never sure if the action will suddenly break the fourth wall with a chair hurling out at you.
In building its deeply figurative and disturbingly surreal tone, the play opens with the family’s dying, alcoholic patriarch (a fragile and cantankerous Maury Cooper) slowly hacking away, slouched on the incongruously ornate sofa - not unlike a fallen king clinging to his throne. His wife, the tightly-wound and acidic Linda Reiter, imperiously lectures at him from offstage, above. Their middle-aged shell-shocked son, a hulking Gerrit O’Neill, then arrives, wet and muddied, with an armful of corn. However, the farm has been barren for several decades - where did he get this corn? In response, he unceremoniously dumps the corn on his dumbfounded father, and then proceeds to slowly and methodically shuck each ear of corn.
Things really get rolling when Vince arrives (the intense David Dastmalchian) unannounced with his girlfriend to revisit his grandmother and grandfather. However, he is shocked to learn that no one recognizes him. (Or have they, for some dark reason, blocked him out of their memory?) Vince’s idyllic memory of this family does not match what he sees before him, and it sets him, and the action, spinning toward a destructive circle of self-discovery.
Shepard embellishes this macabre subject matter with a fair amount of dark humor, which this cast delivers ably. However, I felt that under Scott’s direction, the actors played up the "loud and angry" with little nuance in between. And while generally strong, Reiter, as the morally hypocritical matriarch of this family, turned in a powerhouse performance, while Helen Sadler, in the deceptively difficult role as Vince’s free-spirited girlfriend Shelly who helps unearth the terrible family secret, made distinctly less of an impression.
Leaving Shattered Globe’s production, you are left to reconcile what you are told versus what you have seen. The lies and deception in this family run so deep and have been repressed for so long, unearthing them seems to raise more questions. Shepard leaves many loose ends, which only makes you think more deeply about this dense, dark play.
Buried Child plays through July 17 at Shattered Globe Theater at the Greenhouse Theatre Center at 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets and more information can be found at www.shatteredglobe.org.