When Buried Child was first performed in 1978 in San Francisco and New York, its hipster playwright, Sam Shepard, was a fixture of the downtown arts scene, best known for Cowboy Mouth, a collaboration with his then-lover, Patti Smith, and other off-off-Broadway works. Buried Child, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 and has played Broadway and the West End of London with major stars, transformed Shepard’s reputation. The plays he went on to write, such as True West and Fool for Love, have become part of the American theater canon.
Buried Child’s somewhat surreal and symbolic vision of familial rot at the heart of a corrupted American Dream must have been an eye-opener in 1978. But in 2022, in the Harbor Stage Company’s consummate production (now through July 9 in Wellfleet), the play’s mournful disillusionment feels almost innocent, now that the ownership of the American Dream is in violent dispute and the prognosis for American democracy and political sanity is grave.
The symbols Shepard offers up — corn husks and thorny roses dropped on a dying patriarch; a prosthetic leg wielded like a weapon; the skeletal corpse of a murdered baby nestled in its father’s arms — still have the power to shock, but the sorry state of the family at the center of Buried Child is numbingly familiar.
The plot is deceptively simple: Vince (Jack Ashenbach) and his girlfriend, Shelly (Allison Zanolli), are en route to visit his dad, Tilden (William Zielinski), in New Mexico but decide to stop off first at his grandparents’ farm in Illinois. What they find there flabbergasts them. Vince’s grandfather, Dodge (Dennis Cunningham), is near death and constantly craving a drink, and Tilden is living at the farm, not in New Mexico, and appears to have had a mental breakdown. Neither of the men recognizes Vince, who last saw them only a few years before — it’s as if he never existed.
Vince and Shelly are treated like hostile intruders, especially by Tilden’s younger brother, Bradley (David Fraioli), who physically assaults Shelly when Vince leaves to get more alcohol for Dodge. Vince’s grandmother, Halie (D’Arcy Dersham), has gone off to flirt with Father Dewis (Robin Bloodworth), and when they return, a horrific, incestuous family secret is revealed and the confrontation gets more desperate.
Robert Kropf, the artistic director of the Harbor Stage, brings this depressing stew to life with percolating passion. The cast includes none of the artist-run Harbor Stage’s four founders, but most of the actors are regulars and all deliver well-honed performances. Dennis Cunningham, in particular, is a marvelous Dodge, giving the old man’s poetic ranting a humble and fearful gravitas. Jack Aschenbach, who’s making his Harbor Stage debut, is thoroughly believable as the youthful Vince as he shifts from astonishment to rage to resignation in response to the spectacle of collapse and spiritual dance of death he finds on his family’s farm.
Working within the tiny confines of the Harbor Stage space, Evan Farley’s set design is surprisingly open and airy, with a floor of wood planks and wall of screens that separate the house from the outdoor backdrop in a way that integrates yet distances the two. Resident lighting designer John R. Malinowski does a brilliant job with the sometimes flickering and always minimal indoor light. The stage is used so efficiently, and the flow of the action is so perfectly calibrated that Shepard’s prose never seems ponderous, which it easily can.
The Harbor Stage goes to great lengths to remain Covid-safe (with masks, proof of vaccination, and no refreshments) — indeed, a couple of the first week’s performances were canceled due to the exposure of cast members who ended up testing negative. Inside that bubble of safety, Buried Child is a play that challenges its audience and offers little escape in the form of comic relief. But it has the power of Greek tragedy, and Kropf has fashioned this production with uncommon grace. As the summer heats up and the fateful fall election nears, take an evening to absorb the late great Sam Shepard’s vision of America in tatters.
A Farm for the Misbegotten
The event: Buried Child, a play by Sam Shepard
The time: Through July 9, Thursday through Saturday (and Wednesday, July 6) at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 5 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: All seats $25 at harborstage.org or 508-349-6800