‘Buried Child’: Boxcar Theatre shoots for the stars with brilliantly bizarre black comedy

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard, produced by Boxcar Theatre. Director: Rebecca Longworth. Assistant Director: Cindy Dinh. Set: Steve Decker. Lighting: Lucas Krech. Costumes: Christine Cook. Fight Choreographer: Durand Garcia. Fight Captain: Ryan O’Donnell.

Tilden: Jeff Garrett. Halie: Adrienne Krug. Vince: Geoffrey Nolan. Bradley: Ryan O’Donnell. Dodge: Scott Phillips. Shelly: Megan Trout. Father Dewis: Don Wood. 

Nick A. Olivero, the boyish artistic director of Boxcar Theatre, is nothing if not creatively ambitious. In the past seven years, he has produced over 30 productions with Boxcar, directing and acting in many of them. Last year, Boxcar produced three Tennessee Williams plays in repertory. This year, they are producing four Sam Shepard plays in repertory, along with several additional Shepard productions ranging from readings to a full staging.

This is the sort of project an ambitious large company might undertake, with plenty of funding and extensive press coverage. To attempt this at Boxcar, with its tiny houses (much less than 100 seats) in somewhat sketchy neighborhoods and mostly very young actors, many of whom have not yet broken into the professional unions, is remarkably quixotic. It sounds like an excess of undergraduate enthusiasm, fun, perhaps, for the company and their friends but not likely to be of high quality.

Boxcar Theatre presents Sam Shepherd's Buried Child (from l to r): Ryan O'Donnell as Bradley, Don Wood as Father Dewis, Assistant Director Cindy Dinh, Jeff Garrett as Tilden, Director Rebecca Longworth, Scott Phillips as Dodge, Megan Trout as Shelly, Geoffrey Nolan as Vince and Adrienne Krug as Halie. Photo Credit: Boxcar Theatre

Anybody with such low expectations does not know Boxcar. Olivero and company are shooting for the stars, and they have the rocket fuel to get there. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the Boxcar Shepard In Repertory is likely to be one of the most exciting theatrical events in San Francisco this season.

Last month, I reviewed the excellent production of True West that opened the Shepard repertory. The second production is a take-no-prisoners treatment of Buried Child.

Buried Child debuted in 1978 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and transferred successfully to off-Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 and made Shepard internationally famous. It has been often produced since, notably in Chicago by Steppenwolf in 1995 followed by a Broadway revival in 1996 which was nominated for multiple Tony awards.

Although widely admired, Buried Child is a difficult play. Realistic and absurd, comic and tragic, disgusting and moving, funny and frightening, crystal clear and confusing, it is ultimately a true original, unlike anything else.

A normal-seeming young man and his charming girlfriend make a surprise visit to his grandparents home, which at first appears to be “Norman Rockwell” perfect. But it’s not. In the first odd occurrence, the family does not recognize the grandson. We gradually discover that the family is a peculiar piece of work. There is alcoholism, insanity, incest, murder, adultery, brutality, religious mania all tied up in some sort of secret past. The term gothic seems inadequate.

All of this is presented as wildly funny black comedy by a skilled company of actors who have been superbly well-directed by Rebecca Longworth.

Scott Phillips as the patriarch, Dodge, is utterly convincing. Crippled, dying and ugly he is nevertheless bristling with intelligence and a varied emotional life. His comic impatience with his wife is funny even in its cruelty.

Just as good is Jeff Garrett as his son Tilden, who has been in some sort of unnamed trouble and appears to be a shell of a man. Their lengthy scene together near the top of the play is a polished gem, both horrifying and funny. The actors are so attuned with each other that they play even the silences like a virtuosic jazz trombone. It’s wonderful.

The late entrance in the play of Adrienne Krug’s Halie is like the appearance of the ghostly La Llorona, a choice that is funny, touching, scary and weirdly appropriate.

The cast is completed with consistently fine work by Geoffrey Nolan as the disoriented grandson Vince, Ryan O’Donnell as the amputee brother Bradley, Megan Trout as Vince’s sweetly normal girlfriend trying to get through the madness and Don Wood as a hopelessly inept religious figure, Father Dewis, who is way over his head in attempting to minister to this bizarre family.

Highly recommended. Buried Child will continue in repertory with other Shepard plays through early April. For further information, click here.

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