Dodge (Ed Harris) sits in his living room, smoking cigarettes, sneaking whiskey, and violently emptying his lungs into a handkerchief. From upstairs, his wife Halie (Amy Madigan) shouts down to him: about the rain, the religious implications of taking medication (“There’s some things the ministers can’t even answer”), and whether they ever raced thoroughbreds on Sunday. She insists they did “before we were married,” and he repeats the phrase, eyes glazed, as if a time outside of this domestic prison was incomprehensible. For the most part, his responses are dismissive—when she asks about the weather downstairs, he deadpans, “Catastrophic”—but he wakes up at the suggestion that their son Bradley (Rich Somner) might cut his hair. “Last time he left me almost bald! … You had some fancy, stupid meeting planned! Time to dress up the corpse for company!”
A Midwestern variation on both Samson and the Fisher King, Dodge has swapped baseball cap for crown and couch for throne. And his oldest son, Tilden (Paul Sparks), is hardly an impressive heir apparent. Barely animate and speaking in monosyllables, he lumbers into the room to husk corn—the first crops to appear in thirty-five years—and litters the floor with the remains. This cycle of abuse and phatic communication would likely continue were it not for the entrance of Tilden’s son, Vince (Nat Wolff), who comes to reestablish his place in the family and uncover the truth about the corpse in the backyard.
Buried Child is the play that made Sam Shepard’s reputation and, in a revival as strong as this one, it is easy to see why. The mixture of classical Western mythology and American degeneration provides a powerful and affecting link between long-established theatrical tropes and contemporary, national concerns. When Dodge remarks, like any foolish Greek tragedian, that the “past is passed,” he is unconsciously (and wrongly) resisting that other American myth-maker, William Faulkner, who warned, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But Mr. Shepard’s talents are hardly restricted to the conceptual. The play is viciously funny before it becomes just plain vicious, and Mr. Harris helms the cast with extraordinary authenticity; practically a member of the living dead, he earns each crease on his face and each sandpaper utterance, remaining distant and contemptuous until Vince proves worthy of his patrimony. Mr. Sparks, too, is spellbinding, his eyes static and heavy, his hulking physicality dwarfed by the verbal swordplay between the rest of his family.
Buried Child is famously ambiguous, and we are unsure whether or not the restoration promised by the rain and the reborn crops is a red herring, a false indication of hope. Chances are not good. Dodge condemns the feeling altogether: “Full of hope. Faith and hope. You’re all alike you hopers. If it’s not God then it’s a man. If it’s not a man then it’s a woman. If it’s not a woman then it’s politics or bee pollen or the future of some kind. Some kind of future.” It’s a damnation as relevant today as it was in 1978.