Iron Age Theatre Company is celebrating 25 years of presenting live theatre in Montgomery County. Playwright/actor Sam Shepard’s works have made numerous appearances on their stage, and they continue the tradition with BURIED CHILD—running from March 21st to April 13th at the Centre Theatre on DeKalb Street.
Winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Shepard’s work, as usual, explores the underbelly of American life. The story is set in the Midwest, generally considered to be the epitome of good, wholesome values and solid loving families. Not so with the group represented in BURIED CHILD. They, like many in the nation, fell victim to the economic downswing of the mid 1970s. But this family seems to have totally lost its way long before that, and is wallowing in their misery. The BURIED CHILD of the title is both literal and figurative (the loss of the “American Dream.”). Shepard likes to use myth and folklore as inspiration; in this case, it is the story of The Corn King, which can be found in Celtic legend, as well as other cultures around the world. In the legend, the new generation destroys the old in order to gain control.
Each member of family in BURIED CHILD is damaged in some way: the dying, alcoholic Dodge (Dave Fiebert), his overly religious wife Hallie (Michelle Pauls) and their two surviving sons: the guilt-ridden, directionless Tilden (Chuck Beishl) and the embittered amputee Bradley (Luke Moyer). Through Hallie’s offstage ramblings at the top of Act I, we learn there was a third son, Ansel, who died. In Hallie’s mind, Ansel was a golden child—everything that Tilden and Bradley are not. Hallie escapes the family to spend time with Reverend Dewis (Ray Saraceni), who is not a true man-of-god. He drinks too much and has inappropriate relationships with women—especially Hallie.
A catalyst for the story is Vince (Eric Wunsch), whom we don’t meet until Act II of this three act piece. A struggling young musician, he’s travelling with his new girlfriend, Shelly (Gina Martino), to visit his father in New Mexico. On the way, they stop in at his grandparent’s farm in Illinois. Much to his surprise, his father, Tilden, is there—and neither he nor his grandfather Dodge, recognize Vince. Shelly’s illusion of the home looking like a Norman Rockwell painting is quickly shattered. Soon the young couple find themselves enmeshed in family secrets…
I won’t delineate the plot any further, as there are many points that need to be experienced “in the moment.” Suffice it to say, while disturbing at times, there is a good deal of black comedy in the piece. The ensemble of actors all handle their roles well, although I felt Pauls was way too young for the role of Hallie. She gives a solid performance however; as does Fiebert, conveying the defeat of Dodge quite well. Beishl and Moyer are appropriately creepy and Saraceni gives us a charming, but cowardly, Reverend. Wunsch and Martino have the most sympathetic roles of the piece, and they do a great job of making their characters relatable to the audience.
As usual, directorial and design duties are handled by John Doyle and Randall Wise, who once again create interesting stagecraft. The playing space is lined by a trail of dirt with dead and broken off corn stalks; a slatted angled wall at upstage left is backlit to show the rain dripping off the rundown farmhouse during the first two acts, and through the screens of an upstage porch can be seen the gnarled trunk of an old tree. Wise’s costuming is evocative of the era and the character’s state in life and Doyle’s sound design punctuates the proceedings appropriately, as does his lighting. Iron Age definitely prefers this type of testosterone driven play, with little or no female perspective represented. Personally, I wish they’d explore many of the amazing female playwrights available.
BURIED CHILD falls into that category of 70s plays that liked to shock audiences; nothing is wrapped up in a nice little package at the end. I have mixed feelings about these. While I realize life isn’t always pretty, I have a hard time when there is no redemption or epiphany for character—or audience—after investing time and emotions into a piece. In the case of BURIED CHILD, it is difficult to interpret what Shepard’s message was. But perhaps that is the ultimate point—to get us all thinking about how easily lives can go off the rails. I suggest you head to Norristown’s Centre Theatre and see what the play says to you. Let me know your thoughts…
by Sam Shepard
Directed by John Doyle & Randall Wise
March 21—April 13, 2014
Iron Age Theatre Company
@ The Centre Theatre
208 DeKalb Street
Norristown, PA 19401