As I sit to write about EgoPo’s production of Buried Child—the first of three plays in a season dedicated to Sam Shepard—it occurs to me that younger audience members will likely know the poet and playwright better through his second career: as a movie star.
Too bad. Not because Shepard wasn’t a marvelous actor; he certainly was. But it’s a shame because he is one of the truly great figures of modern American theater writing, at once part of a grand tradition, and rebelliously outside it. Shepard’s highly distinctive style simultaneously echoes traditions and themes we see in plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and others—while at the same time finding a genuinely unique voice that made him an ideal balladeer for the generation that followed Jack Kerouac.
As for Shepard the actor… well, he couldn’t have invented a persona that better embodied his aesthetic. Marlboro-man handsome, with sexily hooded eyes, and often clad in dark jeans and a cowboy hat, Shepard seemed to belong to a world that, by the 1960s, when he first came to prominence, had all but disappeared—think of him as John Wayne, but cast as a hipster iconoclast. The sense of strength Shepard presented hinted also at fragility, as though it might give way at any moment to a flood of pain and anger that could never be staunched.
I make him sound like a Western character, I think, but that’s only part of the picture. At the Buried Child opening, EgoPo Artistic Director Lane Savadove wisely commented that Shepard is, above all, an American writer, whose themes of fractured family relations are far broader than any single time or place. Indeed, Buried Child itself is set in Illinois, the state where the peripatetic Shepard (he was an army brat) was actually born.
And if Shepard is often thought of as a spokesman for forgotten white men, director Dane Eissler’s production here resets that button. The extended family—Dodge and Halie, the patriarch and matriarch; their adult sons, Tilden and Bradley, and Tilden’s adult son, Vince—are black. Only the visitors—Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly; and the family preacher, Father Dewis—are white. This adds a new and apt sense of universality to Buried Child, which is often thought of as Shepard’s deepest examination of a signature topic: generational rot in a family.
It gets off to a particularly lively start. Damien J. Wallace is a snarky, winning Dodge, a querulous old grump who, despite visibly failing health, finds energetic bite in his anger. Cathy Simpson, mostly heard nagging from off-stage, is a riot. Throughout, the sense of their married life registers with unusual clarity and humor. Another, even more crucial point here—the fear that American males have essentially lost their manhood and become disabled and emasculated—is likewise uncommonly vivid.
Some other interesting ideas here: Walter DeShields’s subued take on Tilden paradoxically is more unnerving than the more traditional craziness; Carlo Campbell is also very good as Bradley (and the two are convincing as brothers). Simpson has some killer line readings that I’m still thinking about days later. And as usual at EgoPo, the design work—scenery by Colin McIlvaine, lighting by Molly Jo, and sound by Chris Sannino—is masterful.
If only these elements, welcome in themselves, added up to cohesive vision. It is, to be sure, a tonally complicated play, poised between realism and absurdism; also, one that is laced with dark humor. But more than anything, I’d say Buried Child needs to keep us on the edge of our seats, guessing and fearing the outcome. Instead, as we get further into the show, Eissler and company crank up the humor to near-farce level. At its most antic, EgoPo’s production looks less like Buried Child than Buried… with Children.
EgoPo remains Philadelphia’s most intellectually audacious and daring company, and I applaud them for thinking out of the box, even when, as here, it doesn’t work for me. Even more, I’m grateful that they’ve taken on a season devoted to Shepard, whose work should be programmed far more often than it is. Still to come, each with a different director, are Fool for Love (Brenna Geffers) and Curse of the Starving Class (Savadove himself). I’ll be there; I hope you will be, too.
Buried Child plays through November 10th. For more information visit the EgoPo Classic Theater website.