Buried Child

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer-winning drama is hardly the work for a director to cut his teeth on. Massive, cryptic, and stylistically varied, Buried Child requires insight, bold choices, and, perhaps most difficult, patience. Like Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, which debuted just a few months earlier, the play melds Beckettian paralysis with Pinteresque menace to create a uniquely American brand of agonizing stasis.

Which makes director Hans Fleischmann’s staging of Buried Child for Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company all the more remarkable. A month ago the 30-year-old Fleischmann, Mary-Arrchie’s producing director for the last four years, was cast as Vince, a 22-year-old struggling musician who returns to his grandparents’ Illinois farm only to find that no one in his family has the faintest idea who he is. But when younger actor Carlo Lorenzo Garcia showed up and tried out for the part, the producer in Fleischmann knew he had to surrender the role. At that point no one had yet been hired to direct, and when Mary-Arrchie artistic director Richard Cotovsky began suggesting people, Fleischmann nixed all of them. “Well, if you won’t take any of them,” Cotovsky said, “then you direct it.” Fleischmann had never directed in his life and had little opportunity to prepare, but he took the challenge and has delivered one of the year’s best productions.

Buried Child is a masterpiece whose layers of warped “reality” are difficult to convey. During Vince’s six-year absence something has gone terribly wrong with the family, something involving a short-lived baby born to his grandmother Halie. Since then Vince’s grandparents and their two sons have fallen into a kind of group psychosis, inventing alternate family histories to obscure what happened. Halie, who rails against sinners but is having an affair with the town’s preacher, spends her days locked upstairs idealizing a son, Ansel, who died as a young adult. Dodge, her husband, is a belligerent, alcoholic invalid who spends all his time downstairs on the sofa insisting that nothing from the past exists, including the family photos covering Halie’s room. Their son Bradley, always belittled as a child, now fancies himself the family bully, though he cowers like a five-year-old whenever his mother raises her voice. Their other son is Tilden, Vince’s father, who’s been so traumatized by the family tragedy that he stumbles through life like a thick-skulled amnesiac child. They’ve all tacitly agreed that nothing untoward has occurred, and if it has they must never speak of it.

In essence they’ve willed their lives to stop, and the crushing weight of that decision burdens every moment of Fleischmann’s urgently inert production. Throughout this two-and-a-half-hour staging the cast seem to be moving through wet cement: Fleishmann gives the characters all the time they need to fall into utter ruin. Like this wasted family, Grant Sabin’s denuded living room and Nick Matonich’s alluringly meager lighting seem to harbor secrets. The arrival of outsiders–Vince and his girlfriend, Shelly–brings a vitality to this world that the clan doesn’t want and attempts to neutralize, willfully ignoring the two as they struggle to unearth the family secret.

Fleischmann tells a clear story without trying to explain all of Shepard’s mysteries. Most of the ambiguous gestures come from Tilden, who repeatedly shows up with armloads of vegetables he says he’s picked from the field behind the house, though his parents insist it’s lain fallow for decades. At one point Tilden covers his sleeping father in a blanket of corn husks as though enacting some perverse fertility ritual. Shepard’s strain of mysticism works best when it hovers just this side of intelligibility.

Fleischmann’s actors are so skilled at Shepard’s language and imagery that this production is every bit as rigorous and engaging as Steppenwolf’s powerful 1995 staging. It’s also more subtle. Though the characters rarely listen to one another, the actors do, and with the utmost care. They inhabit their characters so fully that simple, incidental gestures are enough to convey life stories. As Dodge, Richard Cotovsky keeps a cigarette no more than two inches from his lips whenever he smokes, as if drawing sustenance from it. Molly Reynolds’s Halie puts on her gloves as though donning fashionable armor. Karl Potthoff’s Tilden cradles an armload of carrots as if rocking a child. And Garcia as the arrogant, headstrong Vince fails to hold the door for his girlfriend.

Perhaps most impressive, Fleischmann draws every ounce of humor from the play, creating a tone expertly poised between comedy and tragedy. He understands how pathetic this family’s struggles are: the show’s humor is tinged with the sadness of recognition. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, the characters are so fully human you can’t help but feel that your own pitiful inner life is also being exposed.

When: Through 12/18: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan

Price: $18-$22

Info: 773-871-0442

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Hasar.