Reaping a Grizzly Harvest
By Tom Wachunas
Unless you’ve been holed-up in a cave somewhere for the last 30 years or so, the systematic disintegration of the nuclear American Family (and to a large extent the deconstruction of The American Dream) should come as no surprise. Like the weather these days, everyone talks about it, but no one seems to be really doing anything about it beyond symptom relief.
Is there a FEMA equivalent that can provide a permanent, viable remedy? Are the disasters of “climate change” merely meteorological in nature, or is the true perfect storm of our age our utter spiritual poverty? Religion too often offers impotent platitudes, and even our most revered art and artists can do little more than reflect upon the tragic dilemmas of our time. Seeing this kind of content presented in the context of live theatre is often tantamount to helplessly watching a house – and its occupants - on fire.
One of the most revered (if not arguably problematic) artists in the world of postmodernist theatre is playwright Sam Shepard. His 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child is a classically macabre tale of a Midwestern farm family horribly fractured by the “secret” implied in the play’s title. Along with a remarkably impressive cast comprised of both students and accomplished stage veterans, director Brian Newberg has brought the story to compelling life in the current production by the Kent State University at Stark Theatre Department.
Consistent with the overall complexion of this play, Jim Viront plays the grizzled, cantankerous patriarch, Dodge, with chillingly surreal urgency. Perpetually fidgeting with his blanket, he’s a cowering couch potato gone rotten, popping pills and sneaking gulps from his hidden whiskey pint. A tired and failed farmer, between his awful fits of smokers’ hacking, he spews complaints and observations with a creepy, exaggerated drawl as if to shut out the incessant chatter from his delusional, motor-mouthed wife, Halie.
To that role, Jacki Dietz brings an equally bizarre edginess. Locked in her world of idolizing Ansel, a son who died long ago under suspicious circumstances, she lives precariously between guilt and denial of the oedipal secret buried behind the house. Maybe as a superficial plea for redemption, she lined her bedroom walls with crucifixes, yet she makes no secret of her philandering ways (more fuel for her husband’s meandering rants) with the local minister, Father Dewis. Played by John-Michael Roberts, he appears only briefly, though effectively leaving the impression that true atonement is neither on his nor this family’s to-do list. So much for spiritual catharsis.
The dark past has exacted an enormous toll from son Tilden. In that role, David Sponhour delivers an agonizingly poignant portrait of the mental and emotional damage that has seemingly dis-connected him from everyone but the carcass buried out back. It’s a gruesome fertilizer, perhaps, that’s made the neglected land bear the produce he presents to his parents with robotic solemnity.
Another son, Bradley, was the victim of a chainsaw accident that left him an amputee. He’s an inveterate bully who brutally shaves his father’s head at one point – a grand symbol of emasculation. Chris McDaniel is generally scary in the role, though at times his facial contortions come off more like a pouting child trying too hard to look the part. Still, one of the play’s more darkly satisfying moments comes when he’s forced to crawl, eerily slug-like, out of the house to retrieve his prosthetic leg. The only thing missing in the scene is the slime trail.
After a six-year absence from the family farm, grandson Vince returns with girlfriend Shelley in tow. But no one – not even his father, Tilden - seems to recognize or remember him. As Vince, Anthony Antoniades is something of a breath of fresh air even as he genuinely struggles to reconcile the murky past with the equally murky present. In her role of Shelley, vivacious Sarah Peters walks a fascinating line between rejection and acceptance, between mortification and optimism. It’s her youthful persistence that ultimately forces a terrible confession.
If there’s something resembling healing light or hope here, it might be in the suggestion that Vince is a dutiful son come to take over the farm – the proverbial prodigal reclaiming his inheritance, however corrupted it may be. Yet in so doing, there’s no promise that his labors will yield anything but bitter fruits.
Buried Child by Sam Shepard, Kent State University at Stark Theatre, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton. Shows November 9 and 10 at 8:00 p.m., November 11 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $10 adults, $7 students and senior citizens . To order, call (330) 244 – 3348 or visit www.stark.ken.edu/theatre
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Jim Viront as Dodge; David Sponhour as Tilden; Jacki Dietz (center) as Halie