Review: Buried Child

by Jane

And so begins David Mealor’s director’s statement, showing us that Buried Child can be summed up with the same plot as 90% of plays set in rural Midwest and Southern America.

The ideal or criticism of the Great American Dream runs through much of that country’s literature.  Written in the late 1970s, Buried Child came off the back of a nation recovering from the Watergate scandal, deep in recession and high in inflation, a country unhappy with the war in Vietnam. In his script Shepard is extremely critical of the mythology a country burying its past, looking forward to a new day.

In a gothic farm-house in Illinois, rain pours down.  Matriarch Halie (Jacqy Phillips) yells down the stairway onto the largely un-listening ears of patriarch Dodge (Ron Haddrick), as he sits and coughs on the couch, watching the television and swigging from a hidden bottle of whisky.  Their son, the lumbering and slow Tilden (Nicholas Garsden) appears, in his arms an old sack, bushels of corn plucked from the depths of the yard.

Over years, the family has become destroyed, fortunes trapped in a rural farm-house, dreaming of what has been lost and hiding away from what can never be regained.  Their other remaining son, Bradley (Patrick Graham), is an abusive lout, and Halie pains for the now dead son who was her great hope.  Halie and Dodge have for many years lived in separate rooms; her dreaming of a happier life that was and escaping the house for a happier life in town; he alive perhaps only by a stubbornness to not leave the house to anyone in his family.

Grandson Vince (Tim Overton), a stranger to the family for many years, has decided to reconnect with his father Tilden, whom he believes is still living in New Mexico.  Along for the long ride through the empty American highways he has brought his partner Shelly (Hannah Norris).  As the outsider, the sprightly and stronghearted Shelly is able to come into the house with her disarrayed perspectives on the American Dream and her judgement of familial ideals. For an audience of similar outsiders she becomes the central figure.  As she manipulates the relationship between the family and her partner, Vince, her struggle between engaging with and manipulating a family which doesn’t wish to engage with anyone – lest they upset the delicate debilitated balance of deception and power – and her own fears and remove from such a family, it is Shelly whom we respond to.

Mealor gives us a melodramatic and cinematic interpretation of the gothic script.   The production starts slow, and begins to ebb before settling the audience in along with the lingering pace.  On the wide Dunstan Playhouse stage, designer Mary Moore’s exaggerated, dilapidated wooden frame of a living room sits in a white space extending several meters into the wings.  Lighting by Mark Pennington illuminates the space in brilliant colours in the white depths giving us the big picture, and through tightening lighting focus on characters and predicaments, acts in some regards similar to a cinematographer.  This exaggeration given to the playing space emphasises the cinematic qualities of the production; and along with the slightly affected performances, widens the divide between audience and characters.  While Mealor’s visual language is intriguing, playing with these non-naturalistic styles, with Shepard’s often surreal script and a commentary within a historical context, it is easy to sit back, slightly disengaged from what becomes the muted plight of the characters and their situation.

Norris is the standout among the cast, embracing the melodrama of the production and the freedom which comes with playing the outsider.  Shelly’s exuberance neatly plays off against her predicament in her downfall in the hands of this family, both through physical abuse and manipulation from the family members, and her own pushing through darkness and secrets to explore the dark depths which gave birth to her partner’s psyche.  Norris appears to have fun in playing both the humour of Shelly’s manipulation, while the character remains empathetic and intriguing to the audience.

Gasden is similarly intriguing and gives a strong performance, his heavy-footed Tilden the most destroyed and unrecovered from life within this destructive family.  In the cool pace with which he steadily shucks corn, the sluggish drawl with which he slowly expresses regard for the rules, and interest in Shelly and the unknown, Gasden gives a strong, compelling, and consistent performance

Overton does fine in his two distinct appearances, yet it is a feature of the script that we seen very little of the character’s modulation from a young man trying to remind a family of his existence, to a shattered man embracing the power from being identity-less. The remaining actors, from Graham’s disgustingly abusive Bradley to Haddrick’s bitter Dodge, are adequate, yet never truly give anything for the audience to grip onto.

However, accents bring with them very mixed fortunes. Haddrick in the most ubiquitous role, gives up on putting on an accent fifteen minutes into his performance, with just the perfunctory American accented word interrupting his otherwise broad Australian intonation.  Phillips’ accent traverses not only the continental United States, but also makes cursory journeys to Leeds and Dublin.  As Father Patick, the hesitance of the character also comes across in a hesitance in Patrick Frost’s accent.  The four younger cast members have considerably more successful fare in the consistency of accented characters, if they do appear at times slightly unlocalised.

Much of the blocking has been carefully choreographed to Quentin Grant’s composition, emphasising the filmic qualities of the production.  The music both underscores and overrides the action, sometimes playing below the characters in a subtle manipulation of the scene, at other times driving the action and interactions itself, and used as punctuation to the dialogue, secrets, and slapstick.  While the production often also employs large moments of silence, Grant’s composition adds to the dimensions of the performances and the melodrama of the surreal and isolated Illinois farmhouse and it is often in these moments that the production is strongest.

Grant employes a rich musical vocabulary. From the quiet builds up tentative hands slowly inching along a piano.  As the tension builds up on stage, as does too a thick string section, the pressure on stage reflected in the tension of the strings.  Embracing the locale and strands of both humour and manipulation, bluegrass and alt-country pepper the score.  At times, the score becomes shrewd and uncomfortable as Grant embraces the gothic nature of the script.

Buried Child is a slowly moving exploration of the hidden secrets in one family, although the most interesting concept comes not from a family trying desperately to turn away from its past, but an outsider trying desperately to look in.  It is an achingly American look at their own mythology and dream, a reflection of Shepard’s judgement of the American politics of just over thirty years ago.  In 2011 in Australia, it is an interesting look at a society which is not our own, given a fine production. Commentary on today, though?  I’m not convinced.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Buried Child by Sam Shepard.  Director David Mealor, designer Mary Moore, lighting designer Mark Pennington, composer Quentin Grant, accent coach Helen Tiller.  With Patrick Frost, Nicholas Garsden, Patrick Graham, Ron Haddrick, Hannah Norris, Tim Overton, Jacqy Phillips.  At the Dunstan Playhouse.  Season closed. 

Photos by Shane Reid.

Disclaimer: I am thanked in the program for my donation of beer bottles to the production through my job at the Mercury Cinema.  I was in no other way involved in the work, and received no other remuneration for the donation.