Buried Child premiered locally at the Magic Theatre in 1978, while Shepard was playwright-in-residence. It won a Pulitzer Prize without going to Broadway (which was just not done), and still holds up as his most powerful show. His other plays can be too saturated in the shtick of the declining west or too warped with self-parody; Buried Child, on the other hand, has an elegant balance of dream and crushing realism. Shepard revised it for a production in Chicago seven years ago, and ACT has now mounted the newer, leaner script.
Director Les Waters hasn't messed around with fancy interpretations. He presents Buried Child as a poem, not as a bizarre dysfunctional-family drama. His keen sense of mystery lets him indulge Shepard's paradoxes. Where did Tilden get so much corn, if the field has been barren for years? Corn is an evocative vegetable; it figures in all those Native American myths of death and rebirth. Does the buried child have something to do with the family's sudden bumper crop? Shepard only hints at an answer, and so does Waters. His production is meditative, eloquent. Its best scenes are uproariously funny, while its flaws are all on the quiet side. Some pacing is too slow; some actors are too complacent.
The gist of the play is the spontaneous homecoming of Dodge's grandson, Vince. He shows up during a road trip with his new girlfriend, and the household seems to have gone insane. Dodge is a cantankerous old coot in a cardigan, whining for a whiskey bottle, whose scalp has been gouged by his son Bradley during a haircut with electric shears. Bradley has only one leg. Tilden, Vince's father, barely speaks. He refuses to acknowledge Vince -- in fact, no one acknowledges Vince -- but he likes Shelly, the girlfriend, and tells her about the buried child. "Could pick it up with one hand," he says. "Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it."
The play is so gloomy that Shelly's bewildered hissy fits are refreshing. She's a '70s-era hipster from L.A. trapped in a haunted, American Gothic farmhouse. "I'm just along for the ride here," she says in a nervous voice. "I thought everyone knew each other." Later she has fun kicking Bradley's prosthetic leg around the room. René Augesen's manic, sexy performance thoroughly upstages the young Neil Hopkins, who plays Vince in a strained monotone. "I've gotta find out what's going on here," he keeps saying. Shepard's new revision puts more emphasis on Vince's character, but Hopkins doesn't explore it with enough range or conviction.
Robert Parsons is also uncompelling as Bradley. He has a few electric scenes but lacks the authority for the weird end of Act 2, when Bradley orders Shelly to hold still while he sticks his finger in her mouth. Why would she hold still? She's too vibrant a presence to be dominated by a skink like Bradley.
Marco Barricelli does good, muted work as Tilden -- the emotion he can push out of Tilden's curt lines is amazing -- and Steven Anthony Jones plays a funny caricature of a self-righteous country minister. Dodge, in the hands of John Seitz, is hilarious -- a put-upon drunkard with a stuffy nose who has lost control of his family and his senses. ("Stupid!" he shouts at Shelly. "L.A. is stupid! So is Florida! All those Sunshine States. They're all stupid.") But Frances Lee McCain is disappointing as Halie, Dodge's virago wife: She strains to be an irritating nag and chatterbox.
The bleak inside of Dodge's house is also disappointingly sterile. Instead of a Norman Rockwell farmhouse in decay, Neil Patel has designed a set where nothing ever seems to have lived. The room has a couch, a TV, and a lampstand on swept hardwood floors, with no decoration, no carpets, and no trees through the window. His rainy daylight is the color of concrete. The set looks like a warehouse, not a dying home. Patel designed it this way on purpose, though I'm not sure why -- perhaps to offset the brightness of the corn and carrots Tilden finds in the yard? Maybe, but the stark set feels too stark; it's one more example of muted color in Waters' understated show.