Buried Child

(Queensland Theatre Company)


Before America’s tidal wave of cultural imperialism had reached full swell, it could be said, and was by some, that the only cultural unity we shared with the good old US of A, was a language. Even that lacked certainty. Think of boots and trunks and hoods and bonnets.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child is called a twentieth century classic. It won a Pulitzer Prize and all. But despite that literary trophy’s origins in a bequest by a Hungarian immigrant who made an interesting entry into, and finally made good in the land of the brave and the home of the free, Pulitzer winning plays are strictly by Americans and primarily for Americans.

By the play’s end I was left bemused, confused and wondering , “Was there some essential universal element I missed, or was this simply a piece about a highly dysfunctional American farming family disintegrating under the weight of a small skeletal secret hidden not in the cupboard, but buried in the corn/carrot field out back?”

Or then again, “Had the comprehensively compendious program notes on every possible symbolic “flower” in Sam Shepard’s imaginary garden so prematurely influenced my interpretation, that it became difficult, if not impossible to engage with the production?”

Or then again, again, “Did I ultimately identify with Shelly (Lauren Clair), the visitor to the family farming abode, and find myself unable to relate to, or care for or about its occupants, before or after they’d dumped their little family secret on her?”

There was no confusion about Shepard’s skill as a wordsmith. The lyric quality of the dialogue even at the play’s darkest moments justifies comparisons drawn with Tennessee Williams. But where Williams’ lyricism is coupled with clarity of theme, strength and certainty of dramatic tension and accessibility of symbolism, Buried Child is like a carefully crafted jigsaw puzzle with major pieces missing.

Is it about the “deconstruction of the American Dream” as those program notes suggest? Is it “American Theater of the Absurd at its best” as reviewer Pater Carrozzo of Queens, New York reported on May 22, 1999? Is it “Real and Unreal a story of coming home and coming to terms with the past” as reviewer Susan R. Murray of Pittsburg suggested on January 30, 2000?

Is it, as reviewer Huang, Hsinkai of Taipei, Taiwan suggested on October 12, 2000, “an elusive play for there are a lot of actions they (the audience) don’t quite understand … The backyard in this play, for one, is conveying (a) two-fold level. On the one hand it is physically a backyard as many people have in real life. It is, on the other, a mysterious place inasmuch as there is no detailed description of the place, yet a few significant events all so happen to take place at the backyard.”

Discovery of these diverse views both American and international offered some comfort to the confusion about the true nature and intent of the play, but regrettably other confusions and uncertainties rained and reigned in the design and production.

The triangulated configuration of the otherwise conventional “box” set may have been meant to reflect the relationships and tensions between the protagonists, but triangles are, geometrically speaking, the only immutable shape. It’s because they do not distort under pressure from any direction that they feature so prominently in bridge construction and as symbols of strength in advertising. Much of the movement took the players “to the walls” leaving the restricted primary acting space resulting from the triangle strangely vacant much of the time, and lack of balance in the performances stole from Martin Vaughan’s wonderfully understated Dodge, the catharsis of the play’s moment of revelation.

Lauren Clair and Joss McWilliam as the emotionally damaged Tilden complemented Vaughan and presented characters consistently believable and only John Dommett’s indomitable professionalism gave any sense of purpose to the appearance of Father Dewis. Two-legged Hayden Spencer’s creation of the illusion of a man with only one, was admirable but he and Carol Burns (uncharacteristically) pushed the performance envelope just a little too hard, while Trenton Shipley pushed it all the way too far.

In summary, an interesting but unsatisfying night at the QTC.

www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland’s Online Stage Magazine

— Ron Finney
(Performance seen: Thu 23rd August 2001)