I didn’t know anything about “Buried Child” before I went to see it on October 31 at the EgoPo Classic Theater in Philly, which is located in the Latvian Society building. The Latvian Society house itself is cozy and welcoming, so walking into the intentionally eerie, dimly lit theater became the first jarring moment of the show. Dark brown mulch sat on the outside of the path to the seating, and on the mulch sat an empty crib. The mulch encroached on the stage, which had a set of a decrepit living room with a sofa, a chair, cigarette butts littered on the floor, and empty photo frames. A man sat on the sofa and watched the audience enter the theater. He made faces of agony and coughed a horrible, hacking wheeze every few seconds. After we were all seated, a person involved with the production of the show entered the stage and gave us all a brief spiel about the donors and the people who made the play possible. Before he left, he thanked us for coming on the spooky holiday to the spooky play.
At the time, I didn’t think much of his labelling the play as spooky. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ll ever have a more terrifying Halloween in my life.
“Buried Child,” first published in 1978, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and launched experimental playwright Sam Shepard into stardom. Directed by Dane Eissler, it takes place in the living room of a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Illinois, where an old man named Dodge (Damien J. Wallace) lives with his wife Halie (Cathy Simpson). They have three sons. The first, Tilden (Walter DeShields), currently lives with them after briefly having moved to New Mexico and returned for an unknown reason. The second, Bradley (Carlo Campbell), has an amputated leg. Their third son, Ansel, was a star athlete who died mysteriously. Each member of the family, in their own unique way, feels left behind by the rest of the world.
The play starts with Tilden bringing corn in from the backyard and beginning to shuck it, despite Dodge’s insistence that no corn has grown in their yard for thirty years. Halie leaves Tilden in charge of Dodge while she leaves to pursue an affair with the clergyman Father Dewis (Davey Strattan White), and Tilden abandons Dodge after he falls asleep.
In the second act, Tilden’s estranged son, Vince (Mark Christie), and his girlfriend Shelly (Merci Lyons-Cox) come to the farmhouse for a visit, but the senile Dodge does not recognize his grandson and merely begs Vince to buy him whiskey. When Tilden returns, he also does not recognize Vince. Shelly encourages Vince to leave because of her discomfort stemming from the bizarre behavior, but instead, Vince abandons her at the farmhouse while he buys whiskey. Tilden begins to explain the secret behind their family’s bizarre behavior to Shelly but does not finish. Bradley returns and harasses Shelly by putting his fingers in her mouth.
In the third act, Halie and Father Dewis return to the house, and chaos ensues as the family yells over each other. Vince returns drunk, and Dodge finally recognizes him and gives him the deed to the house. Dodge finally explains the family’s dark secret — that Tilden had secretly had a child with his mother, Halie, and that Dodge had killed the child and buried it in the backyard. Dodge passes away after the revelation, and Shelly and the Father both depart after accepting that they cannot change the family. In the final scene, Tilden finds the buried child’s corpse and goes to confront Halie with it. The play ends with the lights cutting out immediately before her reaction.
As not only an American but also a Midwesterner, “Buried Child” struck a chord with me in its depiction of the breakdown of the American Dream. It is not an uncommon sentiment for Midwesterners, and especially rural Midwesterners, to feel left behind. Even 41 years after the play’s initial publication, the characters’ sentiments about feeling forgotten by the rest of the world remains uncannily accurate. The depiction of the nuclear family’s breakdown, on the other hand, shows familial dysfunction to the most extreme extent. While families often carry layers of buried, tacit pain, the sheer dissonance and magnitude of this family’s internal trauma was unthinkable.
Even aside from the family’s titular, unspeakable crime — Dodge’s murder of Halie’s and Tilden’s son — the play depicts several other disintegrations of stereotypical American family values. For example, in depicting Father Dewis as incapable of healing such a horrid family’s sins, Shepard refutes the idea that religion can serve as a panacea for all harms. Additionally, Dodge’s incompetence as a breadwinning patriarch and his addiction to cigarettes and alcohol reflects another, very real trend among American men — the rise in deaths caused by suicide and health conditions relating to the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Each character behaved with an uncanny unpredictability, and even the seemingly reliable characters broke down into hysterics over the course of the play. Being completely unable to anticipate the characters’ behavior stripped away any sense of ease that the audience could have had. After all, even in the most horrifying of narratives, any sense of predictability cushions the audience in understanding the humanity of the characters. There was no such cushion in “Buried Child.” The actors’ animated performances contributed to the shock and thrill of each character’s twisted behavior, as well as each truly disturbing turn of the plot.
One particularly exceptional aspect of “Buried Child” was the sound design. In fact, before “Buried Child,” I don’t think that I had ever paid particular attention to the sound design of a theatrical production. Chris Sannino, the show’s sound designer, created a depth of layered sounds that perfectly complemented the show’s eeriness. Because the story takes place during a thunderstorm, sounds of rain and thunder played repeatedly throughout the performance. Behind the rain, a slightly more subtle murmur-like sound emanated. This murmuring added an extra chill to the characters’ bizarre behaviors, implying that as innocuous as some of the dialogue and actions may have seemed, something terrible was about to happen. It kept me on edge, terrified, for the entirety for the performance.
The set design, which was noticeable from the moment that the audience walked into the theater, also felt haunting on a personal level. Its simultaneous liveliness and emotional emptiness gave me chills, and its complexity hit me in waves. During the first act, I noticed the more upfront components, such as the run-down chairs and cigarette butts strewn across the floor. During the second act, I noticed that the yellow walls, instead of being cheery and welcoming, were covered in brown stains that looked like the result of years of unrepaired leaks. During the third act, I finally noticed that the numerous photo frames on the walls were empty to represent the hollowness of the family’s bonds. Even as an outsider looking in, it gave me an immense sense of suffocation and claustrophobia.
Despite its excellence in some capacities, two aspects of the play which continually jarred me were its added racial dynamics and ableism. Shepard wrote “Buried Child” to include an all-white cast, but in Eissler’s “Buried Child,” the family was Black, and only Shelly and Father Dewis were white. Although as a non-Black person I cannot fully speak to the impact of this casting choice in any capacity, the staging of this production felt highly questionable at best, especially given that Eissler is a white man. It is entirely possible to cast Black people in historically white roles without enforcing anti-Blackness and portraying white people as victims, but this production of “Buried Child” failed in this regard. After all, the only two white characters represent the only order and stability in the play — Shelly represents family, and Father Dewis represents religion. Furthermore, every violent and fundamentally immoral character is portrayed in this production as Black. Halie is a windbag who does not even attempt to hide her affair. Given Dodge’s and Tilden’s extremely poor, uninvolved, and even criminal examples of fatherhood, the characters perpetuated negative stereotypes about Black fathers in the United States. Lastly, in Bradley’s most prominent scene on stage, he assaults Shelly, a white woman, by putting his fingers in her mouth. It must not be ignored that Eissler, a white man, not only consciously chose to add racial dynamics to a play in which race is largely irrelevant, but that these racial dynamics specifically perpetuated pervasive and racist stereotypes about Black people.
The rampant ableism also struck me throughout the show — namely, Shepard’s treatment of Bradley’s amputated leg and general addiction. Bradley’s missing one of his legs was treated as almost an extension of his general immorality and a vehicle for physical comedy. At one point, Dodge joked about stopping Bradley from moving around by throwing his prosthetic leg out from the farmhouse’s back door, and during the third act, Shelly took Dodge’s advice and confiscated Bradley’s leg from him. She carried around the leg for the majority of the act, while he cried out for it multiple times, and the message was clear — that Bradley deserved his amputation, and that his prosthetic enabled him to behave cruelly towards others. On one hand, “Buried Child” must be contextualized within the time of its publication, and awareness for people with disabilities has progressed considerably since then. On the other hand, the 1960s and 1970s were pivotal decades for disability rights, and it is likely that Shepard was aware of the contemporary prolific disability rights movement. In any case, using a disability to represent a moral punishment is never acceptable. Furthermore, Dodge’s and Tilden’s alcohol addictions are also portrayed as extensions of their own moral failings. Each character has a background with significant objective moral failings, such as murder and incest, respectively, but alcoholism is not one of them.
All things considered, I’m thankful that I went to see “Buried Child.” In my limited experience with theater, it’s uncommon to see plays that fill the audience with a sense of revulsion and dread, and I imagine that high levels of genuine fear are difficult to pull off in live theater. In fact, the only other play that I’ve watched which paralleled “Buried Child” in its dark complexity was Swarthmore’s production of “The Pillowman” in Fall 2018. The technical aspects of “Buried Child”were so adeptly maneuvered that they forced me to actually think critically about sound and set design for the first time in my life, and the liveliness of the acting made it impossible to look away from the tumult unfolding on the stage. But despite the show’s success in these regards, the ableism inherent in the original script, and more importantly, the added racial dynamics of the current production detracted from the show’s message about the unrealistic nature of the nuclear family and the American Dream. While the EgoPo Classic Theater’s production of “Buried Child” did marvelously pull off the show’s innate absurdity, creepiness, and surrealism, it fell one massive step short of flawlessness.