SALT LAKE CITY — Referring to the work of Franz Kafka, author David Foster Wallace once said, “For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny. . . . Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories.”
The same sentiment applies to Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child. In Silver Summit Theater Company’s production, director Lane Richins underlines the funniness. Thank goodness he does. Buried Child is a dark and weird play. If it were performed as a deeply serious piece, it would be almost unbearable to watch. Giving the audience the option to laugh not only relieves the tension, but also helps underline the absurdity of the goings-on in this family.
The plot of Buried Child is relatively simple. All the action takes place in the living room of an Illinois farm house. Vince and his girlfriend, Shelly, stop by the farmhouse to visit Vince’s grandparents, Dodge and Halie, but when they get there things are not as they expected. Neither Vince’s father or grandfather recognize him, and everyone is skirting around a dark secret at the center of their family.
The set design by Michael Rideout was uncomplicated, with all of the action taking place in a single room. A couch, a few windows, and a front door make up most of the set. Next to the couch a lamp with an off-kilter lamp shade clues the audience in to the fact that things are not quite right in this house. Purple and yellow lighting designed by Danny L. Dunn casts everything in a strange nightmarish light. Eerie sounds lurking just beneath the sound of the rainstorm designed by Michele Rideout add to the sense of unease.
Justin Bruse gives a particularly beautiful and earnest performance as Tilden. This is a play that isn’t rooted in reality, but somehow Bruse’s performance is. From his first scene where he enters with armfuls of mysterious corn, the behavior of the character is strange, but Bruse plays it so straight—and with so much sweetness—that his character comes across as entirely sincere. This sincerity is necessary because Tilden is almost the conduit through which all this strangeness happens. Tilden is literally and figuratively the bridge between the three generations represented in the play. He is the one who keeps finding mysterious vegetables in the backyard. He is the one who wants to unburden the family of their deep dark secret. To have him played with so much earnestness creates an eye of the storm around which the rest of the characters can rage and fret.
Barb Gandy gave another outstanding performance as, Halie the matriarch of the family. It’s a shame that her character isn’t given more stage time. In Gandy’s portrayal Halie is a boozy, nagging, wall of sound. Her presence on stage is when the group feels most like a family. In the last act she confidently and comfortably yells a her husband, slaps her son, and intimidates the strange woman in her home with the sort of matriarchal ease that makes me believe she’s been living with these men for years.
Andrew Maizner, playing Dodge, the patriarch of the family, spends the entirety of the play on stage. He barks and pleas and speaks plainly all in turn. But my favorite scenes with him were when he was going head to head with Shelly, played by Natalie Keezer. It helped that Keezer gave Shelly a brash confidence that certainly matches the power of Maizner’s performance. It would be easy to play Shelly as a one-note, potentially obnoxious character, but Keezer brings layers and depth to the character. I could tell that Shelley was uncomfortable and sometimes scared, but she was also determined not let those emotions get the better of her. It takes a skilled performer to show multiple emotions and layers of motivation in a character.
I am happy to see shows like Buried Child getting produced more and more in Utah. Buried Child is a thoughtful, challenging night at the theater, and yes it is funny too. Audiences should be aware, though, that Buried Child deals with adult themes, and is probably not appropriate for young children.