Buried Child

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child would seem a natural opener for Steppenwolf Theatre’s 20th-anniversary season. Hoping to shake new life into the troupe (and its image) after several years of artistic slippage, the company’s new leaders are promising a year of “in your face” theater and the return of celebrity ensemble members like Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. Sinise’s staging of Shepard’s True West in the 80s was one of the shows that brought Steppenwolf national fame; and Buried Child (Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer winner) takes place in central Illinois–the region where Steppenwolf’s original members met as college students in the early 70s. Most important, the play embodies the “rock ‘n’ roll theater” that was once Steppenwolf’s hallmark: it’s macho, raunchy, and full of hallucinatory poetry and high-energy action. What better way to kick start the renaissance than a Shepard-Sinise rematch?

But as the hero of Buried Child learns, you can’t go home again. Well, you can, but things won’t be the same. Buried Child isn’t a bad show; it’s certainly not a decayed relic, like the farmhouse to which Vince returns, searching for his roots. That dilapidated farmhouse, designed by Robert Brill and lit by Kevin Rigdon, is one of the production’s greatest assets: sprawling, surreally tall, with buckling floorboards, an improbably steep stairway, and a mounted stag’s head peering over the trashed-out TV room in which the action occurs. And the cast–packed with Sinise’s LA colleagues but featuring only one Steppenwolf member–turn in strong and showy if unsubtle performances that emphasize Shepard’s skill at writing actors’ set pieces, weirdly hilarious exercises in which obsessive characters with conflicting needs crash headlong into each other. But in Sinise’s staging, which emphasizes the script’s bleak, sardonic comedy while missing its crucial sense of mystery and awe, the work comes off as dated and derivative.

Using a family’s festering secrets to symbolize the corruption of the American spirit, Buried Child concerns Dodge (played by James Gammon with a foghorn voice and an obscene leer), a dying patriarch, and the sons who’ve inherited his legacy of shame. Tilden (Ted Levine), the eldest, is a hulking burnout who’s returned to the ol’ homestead after some undefined trouble in New Mexico; though the farm hasn’t produced healthy crops since 1935, Tilden has discovered a mysterious bumper harvest of corn–a sign of renewed fertility that’s rooted, the play gradually reveals, in a primal sin. Tilden’s brother Bradley (Leo Burmester), who’s taken control of the farm from his parents, is a sadistic, one-legged lout, the scum who’s risen to the top. Vince (Ethan Hawke), Tilden’s son by an unnamed mother, is a hippie musician who fled the farm as a teenager but has come back for a fateful visit. At first unrecognized and rejected by the other men–though they welcome his girlfriend, Shelly (Kellie Overbey), with undisguised delight–Vince is transformed from a confused outsider to a rampaging avenger who drives Bradley away and claims the farmhouse as his own. The play’s climax finds Vince in possession of the legacy he once rejected–the prodigal prince, now ruler of a kingdom of the damned.

On one level a naturalistic melodrama warning of the dangers of inbreeding, Buried Child reveals its mythic aspirations in rites representing the cycle of death and rebirth. Dodge is repeatedly “buried” under corn husks, a rabbit coat, a blanket, and other objects. And Tilden ritualistically hauls in the phallic corn and carrot stalks that have sprouted in the back lot–and eventually hauls in the buried child itself, in a climactic moment that still has the power to chill an audience.

Such moments are all too rare here, as Sinise and his cast revel in the characters’ grossness and eccentricity while skimming over their pain. The production’s best moments are its most active and overtly funny ones: the quirky quarrels between Dodge and his wife Hailie (Lois Smith), an aging coquette who wears too-bright wigs and makeup; Dodge’s frantic search for his stolen liquor (he literally tears up the couch looking for the bottle); Vince’s climactic burst of bottle-smashing violence. But except for a few isolated moments–most of them in Levine’s deeply centered performance as Tilden–the production fails to capture the ominous sense of awe that would focus the audience on the poetic subtext.

Without a sense of mystery, we’re made more aware of Shepard’s borrowings from and references to other writers, whose work seems richer and more enduring: William Faulkner (in his portraits of misanthropic white trash enduring tragicomic trials), Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams (whose memory-obsessed matriarchs prefigure Hailie’s eulogies for the dead soldier son she wants to memorialize with a statue), Harold Pinter (whose The Homecoming also concerns a prodigal whose woman is absorbed into his family), Edward Albee (who uses a fictitious child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? much the way Shepard uses a dead one here, as a metaphor for a thwarted American dream). The list goes on and on.

What made Buried Child distinctive when it was new was its expression of the era’s youth culture. That culture’s surrogate is Vince, the self-proclaimed “midnight strangler” who winds up inheriting the world he’d tried to escape. Ethan Hawke’s wan, long-haired, knife-wielding, flower-carrying Vince seems the incarnation of both Woodstock’s naive idealism and Altamont’s stupid violence. It’s like a picture from a photo album: vivid, but part of the past. In 1978 Buried Child offered a powerful critique of a mainstream culture that buried its sins under smiley-face denial–as Bradley says, “There’s nothing wrong here!” Nearly a generation later, false optimism has been replaced by an obsession with the worst in our natures: we find no escape from the killings and abuse and rape and incest in our daily headlines, because the same problems are spoofed in our sitcoms, docudramatized in our TV movies, and serialized in our daytime soap operas and murder trials. The taboos of 1978 are the entertainment of today–and Steppenwolf’s Buried Child, proficient but not profound, is just part of the flow.

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