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