San Francisco's Magic Theatre has long defined itself as a company that develops and celebrates new work, and its just-opened 47th season reflects that with four world premieres by returning playwrights: Victor Lodato, Taylor Mac, Linda McLean and Christina Anderson. But first the Magic opens its season with a revival of one of its best-known past productions: Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Buried Child. The play premiered at the Magic in 1978, during the eight-year period that Shepard was playwright-in-residence at the theater, where he also unveiled such classics as True West and Fool for Love. The Pulitzer didn't stop Shepard from greatly revising the play for a 1995 Broadway revival, and that's the version the Magic is using to celebrate the playwright's 70th birthday (coming up in November), in a spare but rowdy production by current artistic director Loretta Greco.
Buried Child is an intense and challenging play about a family that's been on the skids for so long that it no longer knows how to stand upright. The father, Dodge, is so infirm that he never leaves the couch unless it's to collapse on the floor in a coughing fit, sneaking puffs of a cigarette or gulps of whisky from a bottle he keeps hidden in the cushions. A reliably strong actor in his frequent (often sinister) roles at the Magic and elsewhere, Rod Gnapp is tremendous as Dodge, with wry humor and curmudgeonly disdain for everything going on around him. At the top of that list is his wife Halie, who has a habit of rambling on and on and on at him from upstairs.
Denise Balthrop Cassidy, Patrick Kelly Jones, Lawrence Radecker, and Rod Gnapp in Buried Child
Some suspension of disbelief is required to accept that Halie could even hear Dodge from up there, because the staircase in Andrew Boyce's set is very long, and the pouring rain outside in Jake Rodriguez's sound design is suitably loud. Boyce's set conjures a curiously large and empty but run-down living room, with a ratty old couch and twisted blinds and not much else. But then there are a number of things in Greco's production that you just have to go along with and not let them distract you from getting into the story, from Denise Balthrop Cassidy's declamatory artificiality as Halie to the fact that two actors of about the same age are cast as father and son.
James Wagner and Rod Gnapp in Buried Child
Two of the couple's adult sons are still hanging around the house. The eldest, Tilden (a dazed and withdrawn James Wagner) got into some kind of unspecified bad trouble in New Mexico that involved jail time and came back home to small-town Illinois to become entirely dependent on his parents. Traumatized and simpleminded, he keeps walking in from the rain with big piles of freshly picked vegetables that he says are from the backyard, which everybody knows has been fallow for decades. Living nearby is second son Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones, crazed and panting), an amputee who wavers between raving menace and childish whimpering. Everybody in the family is so non-functional that it seems like a miracle they've survived this long. Halie at least still dresses up nice to go to church (courtesy of costumer Alex Jaeger), even if it's just to seduce the timidly sputtering reverend (Lawrence Radecker) to arrange a monument for her recently deceased war veteran son.
Elaina Garrity and Patrick Alparone in Buried Child
There's another dead child that no one wants to acknowledge, though they allude to it fairly often. The family is full to bursting with secrets that they talk around but never talk about, even when asked point-blank what exactly happened to Tilden or what all these veiled references to a dead baby are about. Confusing the issue further is the arrival of Vince (Patrick Alparone, bright and energetic, but terribly confused), Tilden's barely adult son that nobody remembers or recognizes, even though he insists it's only been six years since they've seen him. He's dragged along his girlfriend Shelly (Elaina Garrity), who's freaked out by everything and wants to leave, but soon settles resignedly into faux domesticity.
Greco keeps the tension high in her staging, and it's fascinating to watch how things unfold, and others remain obstinately sealed-up, leading up to an effectively haunting conclusion. As much as it's a 35-year-old play largely about buried memories of older times, it's aged remarkably well and doesn't feel at all dated. It's good to see it come home to the Magic, and if that homecoming feels occasionally rocky, it's smooth as silk compared to the one Vince is confronted with.
Buried Child runs through October 6, 2013 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.