Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer All the Rage

By Hadley Hury

APRIL 13, 1998: 

Buried Child

The staging of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College, directed by Tom Jones and running through April 19th, is quite fine. It is yet another reminder from the McCoy that a college theatre can mount productions of sufficient quality to appeal to the theatre community at large, even as it fulfills its primary purpose of giving its students a venue in which to tackle the sort of ambitious works that can best help them grow and learn. Shepard’s tragi-comic study of an Illinois farm family’s protracted self-destruction is emotionally corrosive and theatrically sophisticated, and all seven characters are considerably older than the student cast members playing them. On almost all counts, the stretches in the McCoy production are managed with admirable credibility.

Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Shepard, remains one of his most powerful, and poetic, pieces of theatre. Like most of his works, it picks through the aftermath of war; the people of Shepard’s world are the baffled survivors of an American Dream that has spiritually soured, been exposed as a cultural self-deception, or altogether exploded. His characters, ghosts of their former selves or their unfulfilled aspirations, wander a landscape distorted by technology, great economic shifts, and a violent history; amid the rubble they search hungrily for clues to their identity, only to turn up roots too bitter to digest. If Carson McCullers had written Wuthering Heights the result might have been something like Buried Child: the play is gothic melodrama, fraught with thwarted passions, generational revenge, symbolism, and tumultuous stormy nights; its mounting tensions are only exacerbated by its occasional flashes of grotesque, mordant humor.

The setting is a family farm in America’s heartland; the situation is that the farm has fallen into ruin and the family’s heartbeat is barely discernible. Dodge, the perpetually disgruntled patriarch, is slowly slouching toward death on the living room sofa, his authority now limited to control over the television set, the contraband pint of whisky under his cushions, and the occasional verbal abuse he hurls toward whoever happens to be near at the time. Pete “Monty” Montgomery’s performance is caustically funny and well-timed; if it lacks some of the colorings of tone that only life experience might bring, it is nonetheless true and, considering the actor’s age, remarkable. As Dodge’s addled son Tilden, Matt Nelson gives a vivid portrayal of a man who has been spiritually castrated by the family’s festering secrets and delusions. The role invites overplaying; Nelson wisely resists, and the result is at once horrific and quite touching. Ty Hallmark plays Halie, the manipulative mother who exerts supreme control over everyone in the family and yet functions as the drama’s primary force of disorder. It’s an extremely difficult role: Halie is a volatile shape-shifter comprising equal parts Medea, Violet Venable, and Eunice (the character created by Carol Burnett on her ’70s television show). Hallmark cannot quite manage to evince this complete spectrum; to her credit, however, her well-considered performance is equally a measure of what she does bring to it. Brandon Barr is good as Dodge and Halie’s other son Bradley, as are Shaun Townley as the local priest and Andrew Sullivan as Tilden’s son Vince. Vince arrives at the farm unexpectedly with his girlfriend Shelly – played with intelligence, skill, and verve by DeNae Winesette – and, like cinders falling into a tangle of oily rags, they ignite the next conflagration in the family’s seemingly unending apocalypse.

The striking first act of Shepard’s Buried Child gives way to some unsatisfying loose ends and confused dramatic symbology in the second. Still, even though it is frustrating to watch its overreaching ambitions atrophy in the denouement, Buried Child offers a heady theatrical experience.

No small part of the excitement in the McCoy production is that Jones has offered his student actors challenging material with challenging roles, and the audience watches them as, keenly directed, they rise to the occasion, maturing in their craft right before our eyes.

Mrs. Klein

Another searing domestic drama – Mrs. Klein, based on the life of early 20th century psychoanalyst Melanie Klein – is on view in the Little Theatre of Theatre Memphis. Written by Nicholas Wright, who drew on Phyllis Grosskurth’s 1985 biography, the play is set in London in the 1930s at the moment when Klein must confront the untimely death of her only son. The piece unfolds as a dramatic exegesis of “Physician, heal thyself.”

Mrs. Klein played Off-Broadway four years ago, affording the legendary Uta Hagen a highly acclaimed tour-de-force in the title role. In the Little Theatre production, which is directed by Leigh Ann Evans, Klein is portrayed with strength and insight by Margaret Askew. With quicksilver turns, she draws the audience at once into the genius of a pioneering professional and the emotional ambiguities of a complex woman. Also giving thoughtful, compelling performances are Drue Neel Glauber as Klein’s daughter (and rival therapist) and Julie Reinbold Watson as a disciple-cum-amanuensis.

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