Buried Child Digs Up The Past at A Noise Within
Geoff Elliott (left) and Michael Manuel in Buried Child.
When I entered the theatre, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, ready to pass out in my seat like the worst theatergoer imaginable (or just one watching Cats), and positively ravening for a sandwich. Within moments, I had forgotten all of those petty meat complaints, transfixed by the glorious, tragic spectacle of Buried Child.
Buried Child opens with a tiny knot of blankets, furniture, and resident declining patriarch Dodge (Geoff Elliott), and unfolds its secrets with aching precision over the next couple of hours. As Dodge and his wife Halie (Deborah Strang) meander their way through a couple of minutes of bitter marital repartee, the atmosphere thickens with menace and dread: there is an inescapable sense that something we cannot see is horribly wrong. Over the course of the play, a fractured Midwestern family is disrupted by the arrival of a long-lost relative and his girlfriend, instigating violence, revelation, and growth.
A Noise Within’s production of Buried Child was magnificently frightening, and the particular cruelty of the play is that it leaves the audience feeling uncertain of exactly whom to be afraid of. Dodge’s gruff reticence and resignation subtly unsettle the audience, his eldest son Tilden’s (Michael Manuel) imposing stature and inscrutable motivations pose a continuous implicit threat to the family, and second son Bradley’s (Frederick Stuart) shifty-eyed nastiness victimizes even the former.
The show’s strength was in its characters: the whole family devastated me with character-founded humor and tragedy. Elliott’s Dodge is hilarious, dire, seasoned, and layered; I wanted to hear him keep talking and telling his story, even when reciting a literal list of farm tools. Even when the words were almost too terrible to hear (see: a late-game monologue about infanticide that still gives me shudders just to think about), I couldn’t help but listen raptly. Bradley and Tilden were mirror images in fear and stagnancy, and both managed to evoke a potent sense of depth beyond the surface; Tilden’s brushes with the law and Bradley’s embittering past remain mostly undescribed to great effect. Bradley left an intense impression even with relatively little time on stage; the scene where he tries to reclaim his leg was utterly captivating in its primal, desperate physicality. Tilden’s brutish, inexplicable charm brought a very human and real vulnerability to scenes in which he could have been (and even was) a tangible threat.
Shelly, girlfriend to long-lost grandson Vince and outside observer to the family tragedy (Angela Gulner), probes the mysteries she encounters with the skillful precision of a surgeon and the familiar charm of the girl next door. Her unfamiliar perspective remains necessary in propelling the story, but a role that in the hands of a lesser performer could seem like a human Macguffin comes to life in Gulner’s. Shelly’s reactions and interactions with the other characters were what really intensified the aura of mystery pervading the play. Her early awkward acquiescence to Bradley and Tilden’s bizarre requests felt true-to-life— a woman alone in a creepy place with a bunch of creepy guys trying to be as accommodating and inoffensive as possible, even at the cost of her own personal safety and comfort.
Halie and her minister Father Dewis (Apollo Dukakis) were not granted as much textual depth as some of the other characters but still delivered bravura performances— Dewis’s flustered flight from a situation he cannot hope to understand was funny and pathetic in equal measure, and Strang’s offstage voice was note-perfect as a nagging, disassociated grand dame. Strang delivers the last, ringing lines of the play as the lights fade to black, and her compelling, heart-wrenching monologues throughout are essential and incredibly effective underscores to the emotional storyline.
One performance that fell short for me was Zach Kenney in the role of Tilden’s long-lost son Vince. His volume and braggadocio could not compensate for a kind of inescapable inauthenticity that clung to his performance. He seemed like an actor delivering lines as opposed to a person telling a story. Vince consistently took me out of the play and made me wince with fresh awareness that what I was watching was truly unreal. His full-circle monologue about seeing the faces of his ancestors flash before my eyes made me yawn and rang patently false in performance. However, this is perhaps unfairly negative, as the theatrical excellence on display from the other players could not help but make Vince suffer from comparison.
The staging was painstakingly verisimilar within the walls of the family home, props, sets, and costumes supporting the world built around the characters, and faded to abstractness immediately outside; soft gradient lights and ambient soundtracks conveyed weather, and characters exiting disappeared into a nebulous, blank-ish space. The aesthetic and dramaturgical choices made on this production perfectly supports, continues, and expands upon the script’s intense specificity of tone, place, and time.
Buried Child at A Noise Within was spellbinding, beautiful, and devastating. There are only a few shows left, but Spyglass and this reviewer specifically cannot recommend it highly enough. It is truly an example of some of the best theatre can possibly be.
Buried Child will be running at A Noise Within until November 23, 2019.
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