White Horse Theatre Company, known for its revivals of Sam Shepard’s work, is currently tackling Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Buried Child at the American Theatre of Actors. This seminal piece tackles the themes of incest, secrets, and the American Dream. Though this production isn’t flawless, anyone unfamiliar with this important work should be encouraged to see it.
Buried Child is set on a fallow Norman Rockwell–esque farm in the American Midwest. The family’s ailing patriarch, Dodge (Bill Rowley), sneaks sips of alcohol from a bottle he’s hidden under the couch. His wife, Halie (Karen Gibson), has turned to God and stays out all night with the local minister (David Elyha). Their eldest son, Tilden (Rod Sweitzer), has been forced out of his home in New Mexico and appears to be mentally unstable, while their youngest, Bradley (David Look), who has lost a leg, is aggressive and violent. Into the mix enter Tilden’s son Vince (Chris Stetson), and his girlfriend Shelley (Ginger Kroll), on a road trip to visit Tilden. The introduction of a beautiful young stranger into the family mix is too much to bear, and the secret they’ve all been hiding for years becomes unearthed.
Shepard purposely leaves much unclear in his text, leaving the audience with a slew of questions. What happened to Tilden in New Mexico? Who is Vince’s mother? Is anything growing in the backyard, as Tilden argues? Or is the field barren, as Halie and Dodge claim? The questions heighten the impact of the play and emphasize the nature of secrets so central to the show’s core.
Director Cyndy Marion wisely chooses to focus on each member of the cast’s strengths. Rowley nails the part of alcoholic, crotchety Dodge, bringing both humor and pathos to his character. Sweitzer is eerily convincing as unstable Tilden, and Look frightens as a very angry Bradley. Gibson’s Halie is appropriately optimistic to the point of delusion, and though he only appears briefly, Elyha as Father Dewis makes quite an impact as the minister unable to deal with any real problems.
Marion takes a straightforward approach to the play, bringing out the inherent humor and letting the dark moments speak for themselves. She makes a wise choice—Shepard’s play is powerful enough to stand up on its own merits; without wild interpretive choices, it makes a stronger impact.