Review: AstonRep Mounts an Appropriately Bleak Production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child

There’s nothing more satisfying than a sharply directed and well-acted production of a Sam Shepard play. Shepard’s America is middle America at its seamy, seedy worst with family secrets, lies and sometimes even murder. No room for cheery optimism or song and dance here. AstonRep takes on the bleak mood and mounts a Shepard classic, Buried Child, directed by Derek Bertelsen and featuring an excellent cast of seven. The title itself gives away one of the play’s secrets, which we don’t learn about until the end.

It’s rural Illinois in the 1970s. As the play opens, a thin and sickly looking Dodge (Jim Morley) is sprawled on the sofa, occasionally taking a swig from a bottle he stashes under a cushion. For the first 20 minutes of the play, he’s in frustrated conversation with his wife Halie (Liz Cloud), who’s shouting down to him from upstairs as she dresses for a lunch date—with the local priest. She wants to persuade the priest that the community should fund a memorial statue of their late son, Ansel—“with a basketball in one hand and a rifle in the other.” Or at least a plaque, she hopes.

During the two-story conversation, Tilden (Robert Tobin) arrives with an armload of sweet corn, although both of his parents insist there’s been no corn on the property for 30 years. (The cornfield backdrop of the set design—by Jeremiah Barr—belies this statement.) The parents worry about Tilden and don’t let him wander—because he sometimes “gets in trouble.” (Tilden may remind you of Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as he stares vaguely into the distance or happily cuddles something furry.) Tilden methodically shucks the corn and strews the shucks over the floor.

Stephanie Baires as Shelly and Rian Jairell as Bradley. Photo by Paul Goyette.

Halie warns Dodge that Bradley will be coming over to cut his hair—and Dodge threatens bodily harm to Bradley if he tries that. Halie leaves. Dodge naps. Bradley (Rian Jairell) limps in on his artificial leg (he’s an amputee), plugs in the clippers and gives Dodge a close cut, with some wounds added. We don’t really know who Bradley is at first—other than  that he seems to be a madman. But he’s another son…of someone. (“He’s not my flesh and blood. My flesh and blood’s buried in the backyard,” Dodge states, which brings silence for a moment.)

Into this chaotic household comes the prodigal grandson—Tilden’s son, the lively musician Vince (Roberto Jay) with his girlfriend Shelly (Stephanie Baires) in a rabbit-fur coat; they’ve driven from New York and stopped in to visit on their way to see Vince’s dad in New Mexico (where Tilden once lived). No one recognizes Vince or seems to know who he is, although he keeps insisting he’s Dodge’s grandson and Tilden’s son. Shelly grows increasingly uneasy with the situation, as well she should, especially when Bradley returns.

Dodge says to her, “You think just because people propagate, they have to love their offspring?” And secrets begin to unravel.

Jim Morley as Dodge with Roberto Jay as Vince. Photo by Paul Goyette.

A story like this has to move briskly, without time lags for us to ponder the secrets hidden and exposed. Bertelsen’s skillful direction succeeds at this and maintains the intensity. Bradley’s scariness, Tilden’s vagueness, Vince’s eagerness, and Shelly’s sweetness with an edge of bitterness, enhance the mood throughout the production.

Samantha Barr is lighting designer and Becca Venable is responsible for sound design. Bethany Hart is vocal coach and Anna Vu is stage manager.

Buried Child was memorably produced by Steppenwolf Theatre in 1995 and transferred to Broadway in 1996. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 and is considered to have launched Shepard’s career as a playwright. Other Shepard plays that are familiar to Chicago audiences are True West, Curse of the Starving Class, The Late Henry Moss, and A Lie of the Mind. Shepard wrote 58 plays, short stories and essays, and also performed as an actor, most notably as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). He died in 2017.

Buried Child by AstonRep Theatre continues through November 19 at the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway. Running time is 130 minutes, including an intermission. Tickets are $20 for performances Thursday-Sunday.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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