September 19, 2011

Buried Child

September 13, 2011

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
September 13 . Tickets $ 29 – $59. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until October 2.

When we enter the ruined farmhouse of Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer prize winning play Buried Child we go through a familiar portal in American writing. This mix of realism and the grotesque, of Greek tragedy and grim comedy, is the territory of Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner and Arthur Miller and, in adding his Western hipster accents, Shepard also paved the way for new voices such as August: Osage County writer Tracy Letts.

The title tells us everything. Buried Child is about family secrets – desperately protected by the inner circle, and fiercely probed by inquisitive outsiders, deliberately or unwittingly, trying to break old spells and stagnated patterns.

In State Theatre’s admirable production, director David Mealor carefully wrangles Shepard’s sometimes over-wrought mix of styles to powerful effect. Mary Moore’s set is a study in filigreed decay (although more Tennessee Williams big house than mid-West rural puritan farmhouse perhaps) while Mark Pennington’s inventively understated lighting tints range from harvest gold to sickly pallid, and Quentin Grant’s music chides and echoes the action with piano, accordion, clarinet, and even a spooky theremin.

There are some outstanding performances. Front and centre is Ron Haddrick as the well-named Dodge, the patriarch of a blighted family and a barren farm, he sprawls lankily on his battered club lounge like the Fisher King in a trucker’s cap. His opening dialogue with his estranged (and off-stage) wife Halie (Jacqy Phillips ) sets the mixed style of tragic encounter and 1960s TV yokel sitcom – Sophocles meets Ma and Pa Kettle – which follows. Phillips expertly navigates from shrew and flirt (with Patrick Frost’s opportunist Father Dewis) to broken penitent and is well matched by Nicholas Garsden as the abject elder son Tilden, round the twist with remorse, but now bearing baskets of redemptive carrots and corn, and Patrick Graham, mercurial as the sinister, then regressed, younger son, the amputee Bradley.

Also central to the play’s success is Hannah Norris as Shelly, girlfriend to visiting grandson Vince (ably played by Tim Overton). Shelly, in her rabbit fur jacket and blue jeans, is the unexpected intruder into this world of deceit and delusion. Like an Ibsen character she asks inconvenient questions and elicits uncomfortable truths. In two dramatically difficult moments in particular – allowing Tilden to touch her sleeve and when she is physically humiliated by Bradley at the end of Act Two, Hannah Norris and her fellow actors galvanise the production.

Shepard’s plays are a risky stew but Mealor and his diligent cast stand their ground. The result is a darkly comic encounter and, in the last scene when Tilden climbs the stair with his final harvest offering, a dread sense of transgression.

Murray Bramwell

“Through a glass darkly to inconvenient truths” The Australian, September 15, 2100, p.17

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