A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Buried Child

“Buried Child” at the National Theatre, as impressively directed by Matthew Warchus, is both haunting and hilarious, with Shepard’s view of the American family far from the picture depicted in advertisements or a Norman Rockwell cover, to which the skeletal homestead is compared. The comparison is made by the girlfriend of hip musician Vince (Sam Troughton), who is bringing his sexy partner Shelly (Lauren Ambrose) home to the decrepit family farm in Illinois, which he left six years ago.  But no one there recognizes or acknowledges him. “I’m nobody’s grandfather – least of all yours,” grandparent Dodge tells him. A fixture of the sagging brown couch, patriarch Dodge (M. Emmet Walsh) wheezes, coughs, and drinks all day, while grandmother Halie (Elizabeth Franz)  flirts with the local priest and is about to begin an escapade with him regarding a monument to a son who would, she insists, be a hero had he not died in a motel room on his honeymoon -- with a Catholic.  Vince’s father Tilden (Brendan Coyle), once a football star, is now somewhat retarded, bringing into the house armloads of carrots and corn from a field known to have been infertile since 1935.  The creepiest family member is Uncle Bradley (Sean Murray), whose artificial leg is the result of his mishandling a chainsaw.

When Vince departs in search of whiskey for his grandfather, Shelly is left on her own with leering Dodge, simple-minded Tilden, who loves to stroke her rabbit fur coat, and belligerent Bradley, who finds sexual pleasure by sticking his fingers in her mouth. Timid and frightened at first, she gains strength in these encounters, and even defends herself from Bradley by grabbing away his prosthetic leg while he thrashes on the floor

Despite the surprises, like the infertile field suddenly seen to be bursting with crops, and the hilarity, like grandma searching the minister’s trouser pockets for a whiskey flask, there is a mythic overtone that lifts the action to another level. The macho image of the hard-drinking American male and his fixation upon sex, sports, shooting, and tools, prevails in the household.  Death and birth  -- the mystery of the buried child – are recurring themes in this surrealist microcosm of middle America.  No matter how strange the individual members of this dysfunctional group, or how weird their actions, the family bond is all-important.   That Vince realizes this is apparent in his determination to stay on the farm, willed to him orally by Dodge just before he dies, insisting there is no such thing as heritage, just “a long line of corpses!  There’s not a living soul behind me.  Not a one.  Who’s holding me in their memory?  Who gives a damn about bones in the ground?”  Despite his cynicism and nihilism, the recumbent Dodge tells Shelley, “There’s nothing a man can’t do.  You dream it up and he can do it.  Anything.” To which she replies, ”You’ve tried, I guess.”