The Pulitzer Prize for Drama is awarded to plays by an American author, “preferably original in its source and dealing with American life”. Sam Shepard's Buried Child, which won the award in 1979, certainly does just that, offering a harrowing window into a troubled area of American life, showing the disintegration of an embittered nuclear family suffering under the weight of secrecy.
Set against the context of the late 1970s rural American landscape at a time of economic slowdown and political unrest, the parallels to contemporary America are clear, yet subtle enough to not overshadow this careful and purely thrilling revival, first seen in New York earlier this year. For it's the domestic drama that haunts both structure and narrative of Shepard's work, presented in three neat acts bearing the hallmarks of a 'well made' play which allow the story and relationships to build to a suitable climax. The beauty of both play and production is that despite the high stakes and dramatic sensibilities it never once tips over into hysteria, instead it simmers delightfully, offering a rich mass of plot and characterisation to absorb.
The breakdown and disillusionment of the American Dream may be a familiar trope in modern American drama, but its handling here is sensitive enough to maintain a constant grounding in the family relations rather than the failing crops or decaying building. Dodge is presented with a twist on the traditional patriarch, never leaving the sofa and constantly scrambling for his bottle of whisky. This is a family unit that has long since fractured away from the patriarchal structure, instead Dodge sits almost waiting for death to come, relishing the opportunity to pass on their family secret alongside his disabled sons and 'all American' hero Ansel no longer with them.
The comfortable trappings of realism extend from the set design, complete with outstanding atmospheric contributors from the rain and thunder storm that surround the farmhouse to the fresh vegetables practically picked and peeled in front of our eyes. Sensitively lit, we're easily absorbed into Shepard's world, yet the elements of surrealism and symbolism are never wasted – from Dodge's own burial in his front room to Vince's forgotten saxophone and Bradley's leg, creating multiple visual metaphors to be unpacked.
Ed Harris offers a firm yet defeated Dodge from the outset, holding court with both his family and the audience, effectively setting the tone of the drama without hardly moving. Utterly convincing, he's matched by Amy Madigan's brazen self reliance and steely call for continuation that sparks the drama's central conflict as his wife Halie, along with outsider Shelly, beautifully played by Charlotte Hope, who breaks the nuclear bubble and discovers their dark secret.
Jeremy Irvine is less convincing however as grandson Vince operating on a slightly different plane to the others who remain firmly in sync with the style of the piece. He's overly transparent in the second act as his character bounds into play hoping for a family reunion, never quite showing the correct level of resolve. He doesn't quite click with the other actors on stage, and not just because they don't recognise him. In a play full of nuance he paints with a primary palate which ultimately affects the cyclical climax as he assumes his place in the family line, baseball cap and all.
Scott Elliot's direction is sharp yet never overstated. The three mini episodes that the drama falls into are each perfectly packaged yet propel the narrative forward into the overall structure, finding the subtleties in Shepard's text whilst having faith in his actors to expand into their roles within the overall aesthetic. For all its macabre outlook it's wickedly funny, rich in black humour that furthers our investment in both family and situation, making its secrets all together richer in their discovery. The piece may be a darker offering for this time of year but it is finely textured and outstandingly delivered that you remain gripped, yet never truly shaken.
What the Press Said...
"Harris impresses as a whiskey-soaked old wreck in Shepard’s gothic story of loveless inertia and poisonous guilt in a dysfunctional family."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Two annoying mini-intervals slow the momentum, dragging the evening out to almost three hours. A mixed bag then, but Harris devotees won’t be disappointed."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Harris plays the silences beautifully. When he speaks there’s a sense of grizzled wisdom, battered humanity and lots of other things besides."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard