‘Buried Child’ builds strong characters at Writers Theater

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Mark Montgomery (from left), Arti Ishak and Larry Yando in a scene from “Buried Child” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

“Buried Child,” Sam Shepard’s 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning oddball take on the American family drama, operates on multiple realities.

According to the aging, immobilized patriarch Dodge (played in this Writers Theatre revival by a great Larry Yando, taking cantankerousness to an extreme) and his wife Halie (Shannon Cochran, also great, declining to go to extremes and making it work just as well), the backyard of this rural Illinois farmhouse has been barren for decades. So what to make of the heaps of corn that their oldest son Tilden (Mark Montgomery) carries in, claiming that the pouring rain has caused it all to suddenly appear?

That’s just the beginning of the disagreements about what should be basic facts. It gets more extreme in the second of three acts, when a character named Vince (Shane Kenyon) shows up with his girlfriend Shelly (Arti Ishak), completely confused as to why his father Tilden and grandfather Dodge don’t seem to recognize him at all, although Tilden eventually admits to his looking familiar, as if he saw a “face within a face.”

‘Buried Child’ ★★★ When: Through June 17 Where: Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Tickets: $35 – $80 Info: writerstheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions

Welcome to the offbeat world of Sam Shepard, who died last year at the age of 73. In his writing heyday, which most certainly included the creation of “Buried Child,” he was a modern theatrical poet of American mythic themes, of demented and blackly comic battles between fathers and sons and brothers, of damaged, yearning characters who go searching for their identity in the vast spaces of the country outside the big cities, rarely — strike that, never — finding satisfying ends to their quests.

Done well, the rewards of a Shepard play can be extremely high, lingering with you as the images, language, sense of danger and deep thematic contemplations swirl in memory. Done not so well, his plays can be awkward and feel like they’re giant mistakes, empty of meaning (since the plot itself won’t help you much, if there is one).

You can see Shepard done well and not so well, experience a degree of awkwardness, and be rewarded all in the same evening at this Writers production, directed by Kimberly Senior and starring a who’s who of ace Chicago actors. It runs on all cylinders in the first act, with the remaining two acts having an uneasy combination of highs and lows.

Larry Yando stars as Dodge in “Buried Child” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Larry Yando stars as Dodge in “Buried Child” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

The production is stronger the more concentrated the conflict. In the first act, where Yando, Cochran and Montgomery lay the foundation of the world and inhabit characters with deep inner lives, the play crackles. Montgomery, looking a bit like Shepard himself, is actually the most compelling of all as Tilden, the wanderer who got lonely, then in trouble, then returned home, where he may just have a son buried in the backyard, and that may just be why he spends so much time back there, trawling mud along with vegetables into the house. When his younger brother Bradley (a menacing and excellent Timothy Edward Kane) arrives at the end of the act and fulfills Dodge’s fear that he’ll shear his hair, it’s pretty unforgettable — weird and creepy and crazy evocative.

But when Vince and Shelly show up — the outsiders arriving from the city, where, according to Dodge, the “stupid people” live — it’s not just the reality that shifts. Senior’s production suddenly feels forced and hesitant, as Kenyon and Ishak pitch their reactions at 11 on a scale of 10 right from the start, finding little modulation. There are extended stretches here where the playing feels neither organic nor intentional, too muddy for the sharp humor to emerge from the characters’ odd behaviors. It isn’t apparent that Senior has worked out any arc toward the gradual reveal of more details about the family’s past; characters are as adamant about keeping the family secret — that child, that backyard! – the first time it’s mentioned as they are when it becomes a far bigger threat.

With an ending that provides one of the great images — dark, puzzling, sad, sometimes (but not here) presented as a bit hopeful — “Buried Child” certainly retains its power 40 years after it was written. And the production does seem to nod (subtly enough) to how Shepard’s view of rural America possesses particular resonance these days; let’s just say we know exactly who Dodge would have voted for, and that he wouldn’t be at home with the #MeToo movement. But then again, the very myths Shepard was undermining just aren’t as prominent, as accepted, as they used to be. Demanding we consider whether the American Dream exists at all doesn’t have nearly as much resonance when our own president has told us it’s already dead.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.

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