By Michelle F. Solomon
Director J. Barry Lewis has a way of approaching a play like Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work that gets a staging by Palm Beach Dramaworks beginning March 27 and through the month of April.
“Sometimes with a play like this, you just have to let it wash over you,” says Lewis, about the surrealistic drama that a New York Times reviewer described as a play where “comedy and horror dance together, just as they do in what is called real life.”
The play about a dysfunctional Midwestern family puts the spotlight squarely on the dark side of the American dream as it tackles the subjects of decaying families, infanticide, alcoholism and probable incest.
“Theater to think about,” is the mantra of Palm Beach Dramaworks, and Buried Child hits the nail on the head.
“Shepard writes in a realistic manner — it’s what I call hyper-realism in a sense that he allows what appears to be a very straightforward story to take on mystical parameters — that mixture is heady and powerful and, we hope, entertaining,” says Lewis.
For the production’s two lead actors, Angie Radosh and Rob Donohoe, the word “challenging” is used liberally when discussing their roles, the play, and what the audience should expect.
“I think this is why people come to Palm Beach Dramaworks,” says Donohoe.”They know they will be challenged — they will be asked to listen, to think and they will have an experience rather than just sitting and being entertained.”
Donohoe plays the patriarch Dodge in Buried Child — “an elderly alcoholic, formerly a very successful farmer, with sons who used to be successful and good looking, and wife that was once beautiful, but who now doesn’t do anything but sit on the couch and watch television. He’s retreated into himself. He hides under a blanket; he’s sickly, cantankerous and doesn’t really care much about his appearance or health at this point in his life. He’s a bit of a mess,” says Donohoe, who adds that to get the right look for the role, he hasn’t shaven in three weeks. “I’m starting to look like Gabby Hayes,” he says.
Starring in Buried Child has piqued the actor’s interest in Shepard. “I’ve been studying him, learning about his life and reading some of his other works as well.”
Shepard originally wrote Buried Child in 1978, and it was first produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco; it won the Pulitzer for Drama in 1979. He re-drafted a version of the play in 1996 when it was revised by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, saying that he felt the need to make changes to the text because there were more ambiguities than he had intended, and he wanted to bring out the humor that he believed was integral to the success of the play.
Buried Child, which takes place on a farm that is as barren as the family to whom it belongs, is the second in a series of Shepard’s family plays, the first of which was The Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and which also includes True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
Radosh admits that she’s “never been much of a Shepard fan, but I am now. I’m such a traditionalist, i.e. Tennessee Williams. I’ve never done a Shepard play, but I’ve discovered he’s a great writer. To me, the sign of good writing is how easy it is to learn the lines, as simple as that sounds; only because then the thoughts make sense. I found that with this play, with this particular role and with these particular words.”
The actress plays Dodge’s wife, Halie, who when ask to describe her character, Radosh pauses and then utters: “Oh, my, where do I start? Well, she’s a woman who like so many people has shattered dreams. I think she was a woman that had dreams of lots of money and met this man and ended up on a farm with him and quickly had three sons. And then something happened that changed this family and led them to decay. She’s living in a delusional world. I guess when something happens in your life — something tragic — well, we all have different ways to cope with it. Halie has her own way of surviving.”
Lewis says one of the most important things, if not the most important thing for him to bring the vision of Buried Child to life, is to have a very strong cast, and he says that he does with the PBD production. “When you have a solid core of actors like we have in this production, they are able to bring to a play like this a lot of clarity. A script like this has many levels, like an onion, and you have to peel it back a little bit at a time,” he explains. He uses a metaphor that compares Absurdist Theater to a fine piece of jazz music.
“In a jazz ensemble,” Lewis explains, “there will be four or five players and each player has a turn and time to move off the melody line. They will start as a solid group and then each one goes off and sort of interprets the melody and theme. Then it wanders around and then the ensemble shares the theme. Eventually, they all settle back into it eventually. (The) tune becomes once again recognizable and satisfying. That what absurdist theater is and that’s what this work is.”
Rounding out the ensemble are the sons Tilden and Bradley (Paul Tei and David Nail), and Tilden’s son, Vince (Cliff Burgess), who arrives unannounced to the farm with his girlfriend Shelly (Olivia Gilliatt). Dan Leonard plays Father Dewis.
Many of the actors have worked together in other regional theaters in South Florida, and have also been under the direction of Lewis. Donohoe worked with the director “back in the ’80s” while living in New York” and then “we reconnected with The Pitmen Painters here at Dramaworks in 2012.”
Radosh appeared in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in 2010 and A.R. Gurney’s The Fourth Wall in 2008 at Dramaworks, both under the direction of Lewis. ” ‘ The Fourth Wall’ was kind of a strange play, but Barry helped make sense of it. That’s his gift. He’s intelligent and articulate and encourages a wonderful collaboration.”
Both actors say that the PBD’s resident director has an approach that makes a difference not only for the actors, but for the audience when a play is as complex as Buried Child.
“We sit around and we talk about the play for a couple of days before we even read it to each other,” says Donohoe. “We talk about the playwright, the scenes, the period the play was written in, what was the political climate at the time. And it’s really so helpful because you have all this background behind you then that you carry along with you.”
A director that actors love to work with is a phrase that’s often associated with Lewis. “He’s a master of clarity,” says Radosh, “and he has a way of helping to guide the actor and, in turn, that guides the audience as to what the playwright is saying and he certainly does this with Buried Child.”
Lewis chalks it up to his job as a director. “One of my jobs as a director is to focus in or try to discern what I believe the playwright is striving to say in his work and sometimes the clearest route to determining that thought or the playwright’s intention is to take a straight forward approach. That’s what I’m using as my guideline here — taking a traditional approach to the work instead of adding a new or different spin.”
He believes that PBD audiences will walk away from the theater having felt that they have seen something that was, as he puts it, “worthy of their time. . . that what they saw really did made a difference or makes a difference on how they see themselves, how they view the world. This is a story about a family — disoriented and disengaged, yet they are a family and there are universal truths to every family.”
For Radosh, PBD’s reputation is what will help to propel Buried Child. “I’ve had a long association with Palm Beach Dramaworks (Radosh remembers performing with founding member and now producing artistic director William Hayes in the 2003 production of The Dresser). They have nurtured their audience, so they will come to see something that is not of the norm, something they are not used to seeing. But audiences here are willing to go along for the ride, because they know it is going to be done well. Buried Child isn’t for everyone, it may not be what they are expecting, but they will talk about it — the play does make you think.”
Buried Child opens March 26 and runs through April 26. Evening performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and select Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinee performances are on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees and Sunday evenings include a post-performance discussion. Individual tickets are $62, with specially priced preview tickets at $55 and Opening Night tickets at $77. Student tickets are available for $10; tickets for educators are half price with proper ID (other restrictions apply). Group rates for 20 or more and discounted season subscriptions are also available.
The Don & Ann Brown Theatre is located in downtown West Palm Beach, at 201 Clematis Street. For ticket information contact the box office at (561) 514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. On performance dates, the box office stays open through intermission.