Writers Theatre's Buried Child sacrifices Sam Shepard's ghoulish humor for tragedy | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Writers Theatre's Buried Child sacrifices Sam Shepard's ghoulish humor for tragedy

But the performances are stellar in Kimberly Senior's monumental staging.


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Director Kimberly Senior's monumental staging of Sam Shepard's career-defining Buried Child has all the heft and anguish of Long Day's Journey Into Night, the play Shepard called the greatest in American history. Like O'Neill's masterpiece, Buried Child focuses on a spiritually bankrupt family torn asunder and glued together by unspeakable secrets. When estranged grandson Vince, heading out west to reconnect with his errant father, stops by the Illinois homestead, he's drawn inexorably into the childhood home where everything's familiar and nothing's recognizable. With each exhausted and exhausting interaction, it's clear this family's entrenched in ruts far deeper than the one that holds something horrible out back.

Senior and her mostly stellar cast dig deep into those trenches, resulting in brutal hyperrealism (Larry Yando's Dodge, the decimated patriarch, seems likely to die in the first few minutes from all his drawn-out hacking). This stylistic approach makes for a consistently harrowing evening, especially whenever traumatized son Tilden, the play's emotional core, appears. Mark L. Montgomery's Tilden is a walking wound, disguising his own intellectual damage even as he hugs the armloads of fresh vegetables he keeps bringing into the house as though clutching a newborn.

But in foregrounding the play's tragic elements, Senior sacrifices much of its ghastly humor, gothic iconoclasm, and hallucinogenic lyricism, the things Shepard employs to depsychologize O'Neill (he said he was out to "destroy the idea of the American family drama"). It's a compelling evening, but so weighty it can't reach the heights of Shepard's strangeness.   v

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