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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Buried Child’

Vince: I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here.

Dodge: Good luck.

Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Buried

Child" is tough to stage well. Many productions emphasize one

element of the script at the expense of the whole. Some play it as

a dense, poetically-charged masterpiece, but stumble at the low-brow

humor of a dysfunctional family. Others treat it as a realistic homecoming

story, but balk at Shepard’s surreal touches. Westwind Repertory Company’s

current production has no such limitations. It’s first-rate; my only

qualm after attending the opening night performance was that there

were so few in the audience to share it.

"Buried Child" will be on stage at the Hun School again Friday

and Saturday, November 15 and 16, and Saturday, November 23, at 8

p.m.; its final performance is Sunday, November 24, at 2 p.m.

"Buried Child" is a play loaded with mile-long monologues,

scattershot verbal sparring, emotionally-jarring visual action, and

enough pregnant pauses to make Beckett or Pinter proud. But peel away

all that theatrical paraphernalia and you have a fairly simple storyline.

Young Vince (Walter Cupit) and his girlfriend Shelly (Diana Mino)

return to the old family farmhouse in Illinois to pay a visit to Vince’s

grandparents, Dodge (N. Charles Leeder) and Halie (Kathy Garofano),

on their way to New Mexico to find Tilden (Ed Staats), Vince’s father.

But to their surprise, Tilden is there on the farm, harvesting deeply

symbolic vegetables from the barren backyard — despite the disapproval

of his parents and the ominous presence of Bradley (Dale Simon), Tilden’s

angry, one-legged brother. Left alone with the family when Vince disappears,

Shelly uncovers the deeply-buried family secret that has eaten away

at these people’s lives.

Director Melissa Updegraff could hardly have chosen a more difficult

drama to make her Westwind directing debut. Shepard’s play is a director’s

minefield. Its skewed construction, crisscrossing character dynamics,

and heightened verbal arias can leave a weak director frustrated.

Yet Updegraff has the confidence and good sense to let the play speak

for itself. She keeps things moving at an authentic, measured pace,

steadily building up to key dramatic moments, and then letting the

fallout settle naturally, like soft snow. She is respectful of the

musical rhythms of Shepard’s words and of the silences between the

words.

In the role of Dodge, the crabby old grandpa with a mountain of guilt

in his chest, N. Charles Leeder gives us an acting tour-de-force.

Leeder is so close to every flicker of thought and feeling inside

his character’s head that he becomes almost scary to watch. Immobilized

on a tattered couch, he moves easily from irascible crankiness over

a bad haircut, to wistful boasting about catching a Stan Musial-hit

baseball as a kid, to goading Shelly with his salacious "girlie

girl" talk. Even for those who don’t like Shepard, Leeder’s performance

is reason enough not to miss this production.

Ed Staats and Dale Simon are also excellent as the damaged brothers.

In the second lead, Staats gives a courageous performance as the addle-headed

Tilden. Watching him as he shifted his weight uneasily from foot to

foot or clutched his arms in front of his chest like a trying to hide

within himself, I wondered if these were the signs of a nervous actor.

It did not take me long to see that Staats had put his character front-and-center.

In the smaller role of Bradley, Simon brings a key charismatic presence

to the stage. His impressive voice and menacing air add bushels to

the show’s dreamlike quality.

Walter Cupit and Diana Mino, as the young couple whose visit is the

catalyst of the play’s action, took a while to settle into their characters

on opening night. But they rallied to give respectable performances.

Mino does a nice job bringing out the sexual elements of the script.

The image of her perched atop a small milking stool, peeling a Freudian

carrot, while Dodge cackles that she is "that kind of girl,"

unsettles us in Sam Shepard’s hallmark manner.

Kathy Garofano as Halie also starts out slow. Her long barrage of

verbal harassment at the play’s outset wears a bit thin, but she asserts

herself nicely in the final act. Curtis Kaine as Father Dewis, Halie’s

genial conquest, is rotundly pleasant and delivers the desired comic

relief that is the prelude to the play’s harrowing climax.

"Buried Child" is one of the plays that made Sam Shepard an

American icon. Despite its mainstream popularity, the play is as slippery

as an eel. Westwind’s new production is really nifty and certainly

deserves a wide audience.

— Jack Florek

Buried Child, Westwind Repertory, Hun School, 176

Edgerstoune Road, 609-397-7331. $15. Performances to November 24.


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