“Buried Child” is a powerful, troubling play

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"Buried Child" by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. All photos by Jerry Dalia.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production is a rousing success

The late playwright Sam Shepard (1943-2017) won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child (1978). The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, NJ has mounted a production of this play. This production, the first time the company has done a Shepard play, is a gripping picture of how secrets and lies lead to the deterioration of an American family. It is a rousing success.

"Buried Child" by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Michael Dale and Carol Halstead in photo by Jerry Dalia.
“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Michael Dale and Carol Halstead in photo by Jerry Dalia.

It is difficult to describe the plot of Buried Child without giving away its many twists. Suffice it to say that it takes place in the living room of a worn-out farmhouse in rural Indiana over the course of 24 hours. There are seven characters. Dodge (Sherman Howard), a sick, old drunk who once was a successful farmer, is the patriarch of the family. His wife Halie (Carol Halstead) is a scold whose moralistic façade is her weapon against all comers and her defense against reality. Of their two sons, Tilden (Anthony Marble) is the mentally-damaged eldest who was the great hope for continuing the family and the farm, while Bradley (Roger Clark), whose leg was amputated in a chainsaw accident, gets his pleasures from acting the bully. Tilden’s son Vince (Paul Cooper) arrives with his girlfriend Shelly (Andrea Morales) to pay an unannounced visit to his grandparents and the home he remembers from his childhood. Father Dewis (Michael Dale) is Halie’s “priest with benefits.”

"Buried Child" by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Anthony Marble and Paul Cooper in photo by Jerry Dalia.
“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Anthony Marble and Paul Cooper in photo by Jerry Dalia.

Paul Mullins provides a strong directorial hand guiding his company through the mixture of realistic and surreal events that make up Buried Child. The entire cast is excellent, able to mine the humor in Shepard’s play yet equally skilled with the dramatic and revelatory scenes in the latter part of the second act and the whole of the third act.

Michael Schweikardt has designed the shabby but not dilapidated living room of the family farmhouse where the play’s action takes place, assisted by the lighting and sound designs of Tony Galaska and Erik T. Lawson. Andrea Hood’s costumes perfectly capture the essence of the characters.

"Buried Child" by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Roger Clark and Sherman Howard in photo by Jerry Dalia.
“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Roger Clark and Sherman Howard in photo by Jerry Dalia.

Playwright Sam Shepard may have been taken from us too soon, but he has left a strong body of work. Buried Child, one of his strongest plays, uses familiar theatrical tropes yet turns them on their head to cleverly deliver his points. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has themselves a solid hit with this production. I encourage you to see it.

Buried Child is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison, NJ through October 7, 2018. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.