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A Life in Theater with Buried Child

When I first encountered Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, which was just in a production at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, I was a sophomore in high school recently moved to Texas, the second of two cross-country uprootings. I was living full-time with my father again for the first time in five years, and I was deeply out of place in a world of cotillions and teen nights at the born-again church. Buried Child, discovered through my fourth-period drama class, became a home for me when I felt I had none, first because of its language.

The men in the play, which is set in rural Illinois in the late 1960s, use the kind of spare, gruff language my dad and faraway relatives used and which had been inculcated in me as the ideal way to speak, in contrast to the effusive, always-riffing way of talking I found among Southerners, both men and women.


For Dodge, and in the way I was implicitly taught, the best way to speak is to give your listener as little of yourself as possible, to not inflict yourself upon the world and to expect nothing in return.


When Dodge, the play’s patriarch, first speaks, he allows himself a colorful word when he knows no one can hear him. But then when he’s pressed to actually communicate, he pares down his language to ridicule his wife Halie’s attempt to connect, to discourage (unsuccessfully) further attempts at communication and its perilous consequences:

HALIE’S VOICE: …What’s it like down there? Dodge?

DODGE: (to himself) Catastrophic.

HALIE’S VOICE: What? What’d you say, Dodge?

DODGE: (louder) It looks like rain to me! Plain old rain!

For Dodge, and in the way I was implicitly taught, the best way to speak is to give your listener as little of yourself as possible, to not inflict yourself upon the world and to expect nothing in return. The self in this line of thinking is best kept tethered, not so much out of good manners as out of extreme ideals of self-sufficiency. Toward the end of the first act, Dodge spouts the kind of verbiage about independence that one might expect from the character type he resembles, an older man living on a farm in the middle of the country:

DODGE: I never went back to my parents. Never. Never even had the urge. I was independent. Always independent. Always found a way.


For Dodge, and in the way I was implicitly taught, the best way to speak is to give your listener as little of yourself as possible, to not inflict yourself upon the world and to expect nothing in return.


Two actors looking at each other
Buried Child on Broadway film poster. Photo by Monique Carboni. 

But Dodge is no type, and what might have been boilerplate in another play is part-comedic here. After touting the virtues of self-reliance in the first act, Dodge, who suffers from a debilitating cough, spends much of second demanding that different people buy him booze. The fact that he calls booze “a bottle” makes it sound like a baby’s bottle, underscoring the myriad ways he’s unworthy as a traditional patriarch: In addition to being physically dependent on others, his wife Halie is cheating on him with the local reverend; his most promising son, Ansel, died in a motel room (the alleged cause: “his honeymoon”), and his remaining sons, Tilden and Bradley, seem to have lost parts of their minds, and in Bradley’s case, body parts; his once prospering farm has long gone barren, having sprouted no fruit for decades until the day the play begins; he cannot recognize Vince, his alleged grandson who’s visiting for the first time in six years; and the play’s terrible secret, in addition to all the other ways it rips open the family, emasculates him.

That Dodge still insists on the value of his conservative norms in spite of all this is deeply tragic. His ideals of independence having failed him, he doesn’t change paths, but insists on self-sufficiency’s darker cousin: total isolation of the spirit. He calls himself “an invisible man.” He says, “I don’t want to talk about anything! I don’t want to talk about troubles or what happened fifty years ago or thirty years ago or the race-track or Florida or the last time I seeded the corn! I don’t want to talk!”

Yet Buried Child, for all its attention to the cadence of language in the rural Midwest, is naturalistic only in part. What also drew me to the play, even at a young age, was how in it the self breaks free of its tether, how characters say impossible things, as in Tilden’s response to Dodge’s claim that he doesn’t want to talk:

TILDEN: You don’t wanna die do you?

DODGE. No, I don’t wanna die either.

TIDLEN: Well, you gotta talk or you’ll die.

DODGE: Who told you that?

TILDEN: That’s what I know. I found that out in New Mexico. I thought I was dying but I just lost my voice.

Reading lines like these, which could never happen in real life but which felt infinitely truer than real life, helped sixteen-year-old me make sense of where I fit in in the world. It helped me see that the language I had been brought up in was not in fact my native tongue, that I had embraced linguistic shackles—but that I could unlock them.

For me, the fact that Buried Child is a work of theater and not film or novel was key to that realization. Tilden and Dodge can have this surreal conversation only because the stage forces them to. Theater does not permit the inward psychological spelunking of novels or the sweeping outward flights of film. To say that theater is human in scale isn’t quite accurate; it is humans in scale, interaction-size in scale; in theater, the conflict between Tilden and Dodge can only be expressed by them interacting, even if that interaction would be “impossible” to engineer in real life.

Unfortunately, the Magic’s production of the play fails to tap into the script’s riches. This company, famously, is where much of Shepard’s most enduring works—True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1982), in addition to Buried Child (1978)—premiered. Several artistic directors later, the Magic is still influenced by its history with Shepard, both in its willingness to premiere the kinds of form-shattering works that might be too wild for other major theaters—like Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge—and in the content of some of those works: Octavio Solis’s Se Llama Cristina, which premiered earlier this year, had distinct echoes of Fool for Love.

This year, as Shepard turns 70 and many theaters around the country celebrate by producing his works, it’s an obvious choice for one of Shepard’s most famous artistic homes to jump on the bandwagon. But this production shows little evidence of the theater’s history with and deep knowledge of the artist.

Andrew Boyce’s set, for one, bears no trace of rural Illinois. With its high ceilings, nearly empty front room and streaky paint job, it looks less like a well-worn farmhouse than an imitation Tudor home still under construction. Lights, by Eric Southern, also miss the mark. They must make a stark transition from afternoon downpour to morning sun, but in Southern’s rendering, the sunlight is rendered as synthetic grayish with no obvious source, like omnipresent fluorescents.

Under Loretta Greco’s direction, the production’s acting is equally out of touch with Shepard’s aesthetic. Rod Gnapp is a natural choice as Dodge; a longtime Magic artist, he has a plains wind-weathered voice that he deploys with symphonic range. But in this production he anticipates his lines, many of his finely crafted responses greased and ready for launch seconds before they leave his lips. Denise Balthrop Cassidy as Halie struggles even more, but to be fair, her character is difficult to pin down.

Halie preaches piety but acts immorally, a common enough trait, but she’s also officious yet loosey-goosy, rambling for minutes on end about a self-flattering past, scrutinizing Dodge’s every breath one moment then abandoning him for days the next. And even if she’s more able than everyone else to recognize, or even acknowledge the existence of, the strangers, Vince (Patrick Alparone) and Shelley (Elaina Garrity), his girlfriend, she won’t say so. Halie is illogical; she defies realistic interpretation. Still, Cassidy plays her as if she’s doing a parody of The Donna Reed Show. When she stops Dodge from veering the conversation too close to the family secret, she sounds like she’s scolding him for distracting her from her baking. And when that secret is finally revealed, she looks like a member of The Three Stooges saying, “Whaaaaa?”

When I first thought about seeing this production, I decided that no drama since has so perfectly captured the way our ideals about family, religion and community have failed us and we them. The play doesn’t just show a family falling apart, as so many realistic family dramas do; it shows the very rules of drama falling apart as a part of that family’s downfall. Characters don’t recognize each other; they often don’t seem to hear each other; they don’t seem to be the same people moment to moment; actions don’t follow logically from their predecessors.

One failed production doesn’t mean the play’s no longer relevant; the show will always speak to me for the breathtaking way it makes inhuman people deeply human, showing them as real while also letting them be unreal. But in seeing the play reduced to sitcom and melodrama, I couldn’t help but wonder if in some ways we’ve started to recover from the rending to families that Shepard documented.

Here in the Bay Area, especially, we’ve become so good at fragmenting the traditional familial ideal and rebuilding it as a multiplicity of possibilities. Here a family can have two parents of the same sex or different races; here women can be breadwinners and dads can be stay-at-home; here young men no longer have to be Ansels, “with a basketball in one hand and a rifle in the other”; they can be ace programmers or stunt bicyclists or heads of the friggin’ drama club. And they can all still be part of the ideal. I know that that’s part of why I moved here: to try to create my own ideal.

In 1978, Shepard showed us that we weren’t faring well under the pressure of our ideals. This and future productions need to wrestle with the fact that we’ve already listened to him.



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