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Theater review: ‘Buried Child’ grabs your attention throughout

“Buried Child,” which opened Thursday at UMD’s Dudley Experimental Theater, is dark, puzzling — at times, surreal — and utterly riveting.

Sam Shepard’s script, which he heavily revised after it won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, concerns an Illinois farm family in the 1970s. Though the scholars, the academics, the major market critics have seen its theme as the mythological nature of the American dream and the disintegration of the family, his fictional clan has long since passed disintegration, into atomization, and the individual members are well along in their own descent.

The patriarch, his wife and their two sons each has a secret and all share a greater one which dictates the nature of their relations from the opening scene, when aging, consumptive Dodge (brilliantly played by Dan Marta) studiously seeks to ignore the hectoring of his strident, self-righteous wife, Halie (Lauren Shulke). The familiarity and animosity of the scene is nearly overpowering.

When eldest son Tilden (Jared Walz) enters with his arms full of fresh corn, the play moves toward the weird as the dialog discloses that there’s been no corn “out back” for 30 years.

Director Jenna Soleo-Shanks and her designers have created the perfect setting for this near-stifling story: Ashley Wereley’s set is of a wood-floored living room with outdated print wallpaper, the dominant feature being Dodge’s sagging, velour-upholstered couch. Solveig Bloomquist’s lighting accentuates the family’s insularity by leaving the outer edges of the set only dimly lit during most of the play.

Beyond some vague allusions by Dodge, the mysteries begin to accumulate with Tilden, whose manner — almost of a developmentally disadvantaged adult — may or may not be the result of something that happened in New Mexico that he can’t describe in any coherent way.

Next, Tilden’s brother Bradley (Thomas Matthes), whose artificial leg is never explained but which ultimately will become a key prop, sneaks in during Dodge’s nap to shave his head.

Then Tilden’s son, Vince (Eric Meixlesperger) arrives after years away to show his girlfriend, Shelly (Katelin DeLorenzo in an outstanding turn), his ancestral home — but Dodge denies even having a grandson.

In the second act, Shelly pushes members of the family to disclose the great secret and the reasons for their toxic relationships.

While the production features one superb performance after another, Marta’s Dodge and DeLorenzo’s Shelly stand out. At least somewhere close to the customary college age, Marta nevertheless is completely convincing as Dodge, his voice and movements compensating for his lack of wrinkles and sags. And DeLorenzo’s Shelly is determinedly normal and assertive despite also exhibiting tell-tale signs of her character’s Los Angeles upbringing.

Though the show is dark, Shepard has at points managed to blend in truly funny bits, many of them cynical comments by Dodge, but at one point having Dodge and Bradley play tug-of-war over a blanket and Shelly brandish Bradley’s prosthetic leg like a weapon while Halie carries on over a dead son.

The production’s only flaws were projected scenes on the backdrop too fast and blurred to convey anything and sound cues that were too consistently disconnected from the action to be unintended and too numerous to be errors.

Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor who has appeared in numerous community theater productions.

If you go

What: “Buried Child”

Where: Dudley Experimental Theater, Marshall Performing Arts Center, UMD

When: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and March 25-29 and 2 p.m. March 30

How much: $18, but $15 for faculty and staff, $13 for seniors, $8 for students and $6 for UMD students

For information: (218) 726-8561 or tickets.umn.edu

The review: Deeply dark and slightly weird, this production nonetheless will grab and hold you from the first scene until the end.

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