Jeff Garret is probably too old to play Tilden, the most fragile character in Buried Child, now at the Boxcar Playhouse under the direction of Rebecca Longworth. Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning script calls for an actor who looks to be in his late 40s. But Garret and Scott Phillips, who plays Tilden's father Dodge, look the same age. They both have more salt than pepper in their hair, and their faces are similarly lined.
But this bold casting choice eventually works, for two reasons. The first is that nothing is as it should be for this mangled rural Illinois family. Even the physical foundation of their home is no longer stable: it creaks so vociferously (Teddy Hulsker did the sound design) as to become a character in its own right. Once the owners of a profitable farm with three strapping sons, Dodge and Halie (Adrienne Krug) now hardly bother to enact the sham that is their marriage. At rise, Dodge is coughing away on a dingy plaid couch, his cache of pills untouched in favor of the whiskey bottle stashed nearby. Halie starts yelling at him from offstage, and the two proceed to delight in tormenting each other like this for minutes on end -- a preposterous amount of stage time for a speaking character to be unseen.
Then the tragedies accumulate. One son has died. Another, Bradley (Ryan O'Donnell) cut his leg off with a chain saw. And Tilden has lost some mental faculties after having gotten into "trouble" in New Mexico and now he needs his parents to take care of him again, as if he were a child. Worse still, the family has incapacitated itself with the strain of keeping a horrible secret -- the buried one of the title. (And that doesn't begin to get at the worst of it.)
That Tilden should look just as old as his father does is the least of this family's peculiarities.
The other reason it works to cast Garret as Tilden is the sheer power of his performance. When he staggers in from the rain, his head pointed insistently toward the floor so he doesn't have to make eye contact with those who terrify him, he's truly a being from another world. But so vividly does he conjure what Tilden sees, so forcefully does he inhabit Shepard's haunting poetry, that his world, with all its primal rituals, makes more sense than anything else in the play. (It doesn't hurt that he also gets the most gorgeous moments in Lucas Krech's lighting design, which seemingly beam him into other lands and times.)
The rest of the ensemble is universally competent, but of particular note is Megan Trout as Shelley, the girlfriend of Vince (Geoffrey Nolan), who has come back to visit his family after six years, only to have no one recognize him. Shelley is the play's ambassador from the real world, and Trout has mastered the difficult combination of character traits to which Shepard often subjects his female characters: sexy and testy, but also vulnerable and compassionate.
Boxcar is staging Buried Child as part of "an intense repertory project," by which the company is staging four Shepard plays in three months. Buried Child is the second. While Longworth's production of it might not be revelatory, it's lucid and compelling enough to make us excited for what's next: Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind.
Buried Child continues through Apr. 7 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St. (at Sixth St.), S.F. Admission is $25; 967-2227 or .