Buried Child

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Review by Rebecca M. Alvin

It’s not unusual for theater companies to revive older plays, dust them off and perform them decades, or even centuries after they were written because such plays hold truths that sustain over the span of time since they were written. Buried Child was written by Sam Shepard in 1978, and the Harbor Stage Company is currently performing the play under the direction of Robert Kropf, with a stellar cast that includes Jack Aschenbach, Robin Bloodworth, Dennis Cunningham, D’Arcy Dersham, David Fraioli, William Zielinski, and Allison Zanolli.

The play is a difficult one that pushes us to actively engage with it in order to understand the complex layers of family secrets and mysteries it contains. Vince (Aschenbach) takes his girlfriend Shelly (Zanolli) to visit his hometown and meet his family, but when they arrive, no one knows him—not his grandfather, not even his own father.  When he leaves to get his grandfather some whiskey and doesn’t return, Shelly is left with Vince’s family whose interactions with her become increasingly bizarre. Throughout this encounter, she is able to discern a family secret, which she presses and presses them to reveal. When all is eventually revealed, however, there are no neatly tied up loose ends and our full understanding of the family’s tragic history remains elusive. We come to understand the outline of what happened in this family’s past and what is meant by the play’s title, but details are sparse.

Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Buried Child in 1979, and its clear that while the story is ostensibly about a family history of deception, tragedy, and incest, it also is a product of its time, reflecting the malaise of America in the late 1970s. What’s remarkable about it is not only the brilliant writing, the naturalistic dialogue combined with elements of surrealism, but its tone shifts so much. It’s essentially a drama, but I found myself overcome with laughter many times as there is a comedic element to it as well. This can be a difficult thing to achieve, but Kropf elicits perfect timing from his cast to take us on a ride throughout the evening through the range of human emotions and leaving us with intellectual satisfaction, to boot.

The set design, with its illusion of depth in the farmland artistically represented outside the screened porch, must also be noted. Evan Farley’s design provides an extraordinary backdrop to the characters, resigned as they are to live with a big lie and the disillusionment of cherished myths having been destroyed many years ago.

Buried Child is performed at Harbor Stage Theater, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet, Thursdays – Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 5 p.m. through July 9. There is an additional show Wednesday, July 6, 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information call 508.349.6800 or visit harborstage.org.