Cold Comfort Farm

Something hideous hangs nailed to the door of the farmhouse in Kitchen Dog Theater's sublimely terrifying production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child. Old sock? Clump of moss? Hair? Oh, no... it couldn't be what I think it is. They wouldn't use that.

Oh, yes, they would. Brrrrr. There are nasty goings-on inside the home of farmer Dodge, wife Halie and their grown sons Tilden and Bradley. Things nobody should know about, let alone witness. This American gothic tale unfolds over three acts of surprising plot turns so creepy they would give Ed Gein nightmares. Which is why you should see this production immediately. It's scary, funny, wonderful. Sad, shocking, strange. Right up to the final gasp, it's riveting edge-of-the-seat stuff, with performances perfectly tuned to that particular sharp note on the scale that makes the small bones vibrate.

Directed by KDT artistic director Dan Day with an eye to savage but elegant tableaux and an ear for the cadence of Midwestern speech, the seven fine actors in Buried Child move in agonized slowness, as if their characters are weighed down under the burden of a miserable family history. On a soaring, surreal set by designer Bryan Wofford that sends a rickety plank staircase zigzagging into the heavens, Dodge (Barry Nash) and his clan do a slow motion dance of death. Every gesture, every entrance and exit has been choreographed to produce maximum shudders. Never have a can of shaving cream, a human thumb and yellowed pages torn from a book seemed so threatening.

It's a hard play to do and for that reason is produced less often than other Shepard titles. Buried Child requires diligent restraint from its actors and close attention from its audience to do what the playwright intends. Composed of language that comes in long and short bursts stripped to the bare essentials, the play starts with a comical exchange of unimportant small talk between Dodge and Halie (Marjorie Hayes), each sitting motionless in separate rooms. It feels for a moment like Beckett, all that air between sentences. The absurd prattling sounds so familiar because it's so inane. Then it turns.

Like watching Norman Bates serve sandwiches to Marion Crane in the motel parlor, we realize that what seem on the surface to be innocuous exchanges between family members begin to set off internal alarms. Why is Tilden (Bryan Keith Moore) shuffling out to harvest vegetables in bloodstained pajamas? What else will Dodge pull from beneath the cushions of that lice-ridden sofa? Why doesn't anyone in the house recognize grandson Vince (Seith Thomas Magill) when he drops by for a visit? You want to know, and yet you don't.

Earning Shepard, then in his 30s, a Pulitzer for drama in 1979, Buried Child dares to expose hideous home truths about the ideals of the traditional American family. We learn that Dodge, now wheezing with some terminal condition from his spot deep down in that couch, once was a successful farmer with strapping sons who were war heroes and football stars. No more. The farm, somewhere in Illinois, lies in ruins, although Tilden, nearly catatonic after returning home from an unexplained episode in New Mexico, insists there are bushels of corn and carrots to be picked "out back." Bradley (Scott Milligan), a behemoth with one good leg, lumbers in. Is he a monster or just a big dirty child?

Shepard doesn't answer any questions directly in his play. Details emerge fitfully, the whole story coming together for the audience only in the final seconds. But as Miller did in Death of a Salesman, as Albee did in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Shepard keeps us interested and allows us to learn enough about this family as it goes along to see that, shorn of piety and material wealth, they share a common dedication to only one thing: keeping a deep, dark secret.

This is a nuclear family mid-meltdown. They live in "taboo territory," says young Vince. Insanity. Incest. Murder. When Halie carries in a bunch of roses, "they almost cover the stench of sin in this house." (KDT's production works from the script cut down and reworked with a new ending by Shepard in 1995.)

Minute for minute the best work by Kitchen Dog in many a moon, Buried Child boasts actors who know how to craft memorable performances in difficult roles. Nash gives Dodge the beady eyes and taut movements of a caged animal. Hayes, a little shaky on her long stretches of words on opening night, nevertheless uses her powerful and expressive voice to show that mother Halie is sometimes the high and mighty doyenne and sometimes the flirty tart.

As the half-crazed Tilden, Moore builds the simple act of ripping paper into an exercise in sustained dramatic tension. Milligan's Bradley is frightening to begin with (think DeNiro in Cape Fear) and a big wobbly mound at the end. Magill makes us think Vince is the outsider, the normal one who escaped this crib of lunacy. Then he goes out on an errand and comes back raving mad, as wild-eyed and stoop-shouldered as his elders. Dana Tanner has some nice moments as Shelly, Vince's girlfriend, who giggles when she first sees his odd relatives, then finds out they are not at all what she expected. Ever the one to flout theatrical convention, Shepard introduces a new character in the latter half of Act 3, the brittle little preacher, Father Dewis, played just right by James Kille.

Buried Child doesn't end when the lights come up. Shepard won't make it that easy. And live theater this good, especially in a space as intimate at KDT's, puts us close enough to the living, breathing bodies on the stage that the experience feels almost too real. This play leaves a legacy like few others. It haunts the thoughts and nicks a few new little scars on the soul. I'm sure they'll heal. But till then, I'm sleeping with the lights on.

What they're doing at Kitchen Dog Theater is art. What they're doing at Theatre Three right now is Medicine, Man. Written by Jeffrey Stanley, it's a two-act something or other about a beer-chugging Southern good ol' boy whose mama lies in a coma because a doctor prescribed a new cancer drug that shut down her kidneys.

Calvin Barker (Scott Latham) is twitchier about missing the NASCAR Pepsi 400 on TV than he is about seeing to his mother's dire medical condition. Until, at her bedside, he meets Dr. Morrison (Kerry Cole), a pretty lady who flirts with him so he'll consent to letting her put Mom on dialysis so she, the doc, can write a journal article about the whole mess.

Enter Calvin's bossy twin sister, Tracy (Diane Worman), who insists their mother had a living will that precluded any last-ditch life-saving. There's also a mysterious character named "Swimmer" (R Bruce Elliott), an American Indian shape-shifter who walks through walls and occasionally talks in a voice that sounds exactly like Joe Sears as Aunt Pearl in Greater Tuna.

In script form, this reads like a situation comedy with one or two funny lines per page. On its feet, however, this play needs a surgical scene-ectomy. Long sections leave Calvin alone onstage talking on the phone. At one point he calls his mother's minister (Dan Nolen Jr.) and asks that he come to the hospital. Then, get this, Calvin hangs up and strums a guitar for what seems like hours until the preacher arrives. On film or TV this could be accomplished with a quick cut. In live theater, we're left figuring out how far the preacher lives from the theater and why he doesn't get here already.

A glance around the audience after intermission found many of Theatre Three's elderly stalwarts with their heads drooped to their chests. I think I even nodded out for a wink or two. They should post a warning for this Medicine: May cause drowsiness.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner