December 9, 2016
Ed Harris stuns in this revival of Sam Shepard’s brutal portrait of a broken America
Something’s rotten in the state of Illinois.
Playwright Sam Shepard’s America is one of broken men and women distorted by the pressure to hold it together. It’s defined by decay and toxic mutations on the nuclear family. And it’s revived with unsettling prescience at the Trafalgar Studios.
Buried Child, which premiered in 1979 to a Pulitzer, Obie Award and five Tony nominations in 1979, is set in the rural Midwest during the recession. It takes traditional domestic drama and weaves in the shattered Americana Dream, with strains of Gothicism and bleak poetry. Two intervals divide the play into three 50 minute sections all set in the same sitting room, over a slow, stifling production.
But it’s thrilling too – as we are given an all too intimate vision of a family buried under years of secrets, failures and disappointment. A husband, wife and two adult sons lead an unseen, shabby half-life until a grandson and his girlfriend arrive unexpectedly and force the narrative to a climactic revelation that only exhumes more questions.
There’s decrepit dad Dodge, played with raw, wry comedy by Ed Harris (Westworld, The Hours, Truman Show). ‘I’m an invisible man. I don’t enjoy anything,’ he says to the voice of wife Halie, who blabbers on unseen from upstairs.
Such lifelessness defines his stage presence and the pace of the whole play: Dodge remains prone throughout — first static on the sofa, then slumped on the floor. Harris’s command of the stage, from beneath a blanket, moving only to light cigarettes and surreptitiously glug whiskey, is remarkable. In a production that’s thrillingly un-theatrical, he has whole audience silent, too engrossed to even cough or rustle.
As an uneasy foil, wife Halie finally comes downstairs to reveal a polished, carefully constructed veneer. Actor Amy Madigan (Harris’s wife in real life as well as on stage) remains taut, with a brittle quality that belies the neat chirpiness. Grown-up sons Tildan (Barnaby Kay) and Bradley (Gary Shelford) each give their own portrait of damage. Then newcomer Shelly (Charlotte Hope) is alarmingly resistant to her own vulnerability, while grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) slides from vigour to defeat with agonising inevitability.
Like a Pinter play, the tension creeps up on you. There’s a mingled sense of intrigue and utter futility. You’re engrossed,eager to know “what happened” yet well aware the truth will provide no relief.
Sure enough, when Shepard allows that big reveal – the unearthed buried child – there is no satisfaction or solution. Instead the dramatic landscape is churned up into a much murkier terrain. Implications of incest and abuse surface but stay in the shadows. And the whole miserable cycle is set to continue with the new generation.
As if we weren’t uneasy enough about the USA, this masterful revival reminds just how deeply and wholly the American Dream has been buried by poverty and disenfranchisement.