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FAMILY BUSINESS: Tilden (Damian Carrieri, right) shucks corn while his sick father Dodge (Paulo Quiros) sleeps, and both must ultimately confront secrets from their past in "Buried Child."nd of caption

Dark Humor and Unspeakable Secrets of Family Life Emerge In Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” Season-Opener at Intime

Donald Gilpin

Shelly: It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something.
Vince: What's a' matter with that? It's American.

Vince and his girlfriend Shelly, as they approach the front door of Vince's family home, are about to entangle themselves in one of the darkest visions of American family life ever presented on stage. What might at first glance resemble a happy, idealized Norman Rockwell magazine cover quickly turns into a grim, unsettling portrayal of mental instability, bitter resentments, violence, and death.

Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1978), playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend, is rich in sardonic humor and timeless in its vivid images of the ravages of family life. It stands alongside Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1948) and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956) in the category of American masterpieces that uncompromisingly and compellingly reveal truths about ourselves, our closest human relationships and the dysfunctionalities of our society. Buried Child is more unconventional, more surprising and, in its gothic idiosyncrasies, perhaps the most disturbing of the three plays.

A young Theatre Intime undergraduate company, in its 2005-06 season opener under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Douglas Lavanture, delivers some dynamic, illuminating character portrayals and vivid, memorable moments of comedy and drama. Unfortunately, however, the depths of the darkness and evil, and the requisite credibility and realism underpinning the extravagant surrealism of Buried Child are often absent in this production. There are significant gaps here, in age and in life experience, between these actors and some of the characters they portray.

Set in an old family farmhouse in southern Illinois, Buried Child explores questions of individual identity and one's role within a family. There is mystery in the past lives of these characters, and, indeed, an actual child buried — in the back yard. The forward motion of the plot gradually exhumes the buried secrets of that family history.

Constantly bickering, the dying patriarch Dodge (Paulo Quiros) and his garrulous wife Halie (Elizabeth Abernethy) live out their barren lives, mostly on separate floors of this farmhouse. Halie delivers much of her dialogue from offstage upstairs. Their son Tilden (Damian Carrieri) — approaching middle age, mentally unbalanced, diffident — inexplicably brings in armloads of fresh corn and carrots from the supposedly barren back field. The second son Bradley (Thomas Dollar), maimed in a chainsaw accident and walking with a removable wooden leg, is an angry bully, potentially brutal to family and others.

It is this bizarre family scene that Vince (Jeff Brown) and his girlfriend Shelly (Alex Ripp) encounter. Vince, the son of Tilden, has not been home for six years. Dodge does not recognize his grandson, nor does Tilden recognize his own son. Just as Vince and Shelly try to make connections, to assert and establish their identities in this hostile setting, the audience struggles to find meaning and order in these strange proceedings.

Vince first fights to gain acknowledgment and recognition from his father and grandfather: “How could they not recognize me? How in the hell could they not recognize me! I'm their son!” Then Shelly, after reaching out to connect, with Tilden and Dodge in particular, expresses her frustration with Halie's indifference: “Don't you wanna' know who I am! Don't you wanna know what I'm doing here! I'm not dead!”

Mr. Quiros' Dodge is a fiercely energetic character, frightened of his family and his past and fighting for his life. The 50-year stretch in age here and unrealistic make-up are problematic. Ms. Abernethy presents a colorful Halie, trying to preserve her own vision of the family's past and to escape its present. Again there is a large age gap here between actor and character, and Ms. Abernethy is most convincing in her long monologues delivered from offstage.

Mr. Carrieri's simple-minded, careworn Tilden is credible, caring, and threatening all at the same time; but Mr. Dollar's vicious Bradley lacks the menace and overpowering aura of malice that his part requires.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Ripp's characterizations are on firmer ground, more familiar territory. They are consistently in character and believable as the two twenty-year-olds, outsiders from the “real” world entering this scene of darkness and depravity. They provide, at least on first appearance, a certain welcomed normality, and Shelly attempts to establish communication, humanity, and understanding in this bereft family group. She also brings a certain air of sexual tension to the male-dominated household. Both these characters, all the way through to Shelly's escape and Vince's immersion in the family, are engaging and sympathetic.

Another outsider, Christian Burset's Father Dewis arrives in the second half of the play, involved in some sort of shady relationship with Halie. The least developed of Mr. Shepard's characters, he is a caricature of a well-intentioned, inept minister. He immediately realizes that he's in over his depth in this darkly enmeshed family circle and eagerly abdicates all responsibility. His rational Christianity is futile in the face of such decadence. “I'm just a guest here, Halie. I don't know what my position is exactly. This is outside my parish anyway.”

Set design by Lauren Wang, Jeff Hill and Ms. Abernethy, representing the main room of the farmhouse with staircase ascending to the second floor, is functional, simple and efficient, but does need to be less minimalist, more realistic to help establish the credibility of this place and its inhabitants. Will Ellerbe's lighting design could also be more helpful in establishing the nuances of the mixed tone of this darkly comic drama.

As Vince asserts at the start, “It's American … It's my heritage. What dya' expect?” He does indeed inherit his grandfather's house, and along with it the depravity, violence, inability to connect, and denial of the truth that all constitute the dark side of the American Dream and the legacy of the American family in this luminous drama, whose powerful universal themes transcend the lapses of this production and resonate just as richly now as they did a full generation ago.

Buried Child will play September 29-October 1, at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. For tickets call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets.



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