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'Buried' treasure: Shepard play digs deep

More and more, I have the suspicion that "dysfunctional family" is redundant. The only "normal" families I know are the ones I don't know well. One can lament this situation -- and, perhaps, the psychotherapy industry that profits from it. But one can also celebrate it as a source of rich artistic potential. Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," playing at Live Arts through May 3, does just that, with ominous echoes of Flannery O'Connor's famous claim that, "If we survive our childhoods, we have enough material to last a lifetime."

As its title suggests, the play builds its plot around the possibility that one member of the family did not survive. The dark secret looms in the background, framing the tense domestic battles of everyday life with the suggestion of huge consequences. Herein lies Shepard's gift. He seizes upon the universality of dysfunction and turns it into a source of connection and engagement. On some level, we all can identify with the struggle to love, to communicate with, even to recognize each other. What is more shared? What, moreover, can teach us more about the difficulties of living, writ more broadly?

Director Boomie Pederson brings us Shepard's take on a family in contained crisis. Two sons have come back home to their 1970s Illinois farm broken and damaged, either physically (Glenn P. Harris as the one-legged Bradley) or mentally (Satch Huizenga as Tilden). Both cling, somewhat desperately, to reality. Home, though, is a particularly difficult place to do so.

Their father, Dodge (a brilliantly bellicose Bill Williamson), remains a near-permanent fixture on the living room sofa, festering in an unspecified, late-life pain that he attempts to pickle with frequent stolen nips from a hidden whisky bottle. His wife, Halie (Karen Handley) progressively retreats from reality both into her idealized past -- she lives in an upstairs guest room that is a kind of shrine of old photographs -- and into the escapist social world of her local church.

The catalyst of the living-room-as-pressure-cooker setup comes in grandson Vince (Ray Nedzel), who shows up unannounced with his girlfriend Shelly (Catherine Ogden, in a strikingly honest and moving performance). Vince and Shelly are on their way across the country to New Mexico to reunite with Vince's father, Tilden, after a several-year disconnect. Finding Tilden instead in Illinois, dependent and near-catatonic, is only one of the twists of fate Vince didn't expect. Neither of his infantile relatives, father and grandfather, admits that he recognizes Vince, triggering his own insecurities about identity and cranking the tension in the house up another few notches.

There are, I think, several major problems with the script and staging.First, the tone is uneven. At times, the characters lose their line on what they're supposed to sound like. Vince, in particular, slips into a few moments of Eminem-like pretentious body language, the kind of "look-anywhere-but-at-me" hand waving and posturing that emerges from profound insecurity. Real enough, but at moments it's not quite right for Vince. Halie has similar moments in which her shrill restlessness is just a touch too much.

Second, and more importantly, the play's tremendous energy flows not so much from rupture and collapse, but from the threat of rupture and collapse. Shepard writes like a Midwestern, low-church Tennessee Williams. He is at his best when things are about to fall apart.The play's first two acts manage this energy -- the energy of the "almost" -- extremely well, accenting Shepard's implied suggestion that what we don't say and don't do might be more insidious than our actions. The third act, though, gives in to the crisis threatening, and I can't help but feel disappointed by some of Shepard's excesses.

But there is much more that is wonderful about this production than there is off-putting. Shepard writes spare, beautiful lines of a distinctly American idiom. More than once I heard my own family talking through the characters' mouths. And a live band, with original music by Phyllis Knight and Tanya Kae, matches the play's absurdity with an appropriately jarring sound resembling something like Elvis Costello meets Pink Floyd.

Most of all, the play gives us two complicated characters to love. Dodge, in all his rancorous honesty, proves endearing as the grandfather whose acidic gall makes his fierce vitality all the more compelling. Even with many reasons not to, he desperately wants to live.

Shelly, though, ultimately gives us our model as the puzzled but persistent outsider trying to come to terms with the quotidian weirdness around her. We identify both with her cringing at absurdity and pain and with her steadiness in the face of it.

"I'll do whatever I have to do to survive, just to make it through this thing," she says.

Won't we all?

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