Wonky tone buries Magic’s Buried Child

Sep 18

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Vince (Patrick Alparone, standing) comes to terms with his family legacy and with Dodge, his grandfather (Rod Gnapp), in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Below: Tilden (James Wagner) shucks some corn, much to the consternation of his father, Dodge. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

By all rights, the Magic Theatre’s season-opening production of Buried Child by Sam Shepard, the man who helped build the Magic’s national reputation during his 12-year stay from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s, should be a triumph. Continuing the five-year Sheparding America celebration of the writer’s work, the production should be a potent reminder of just how electrifying, unsettling and beautiful Shepard’s writing can be.

This is not that production.

Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, struggles establishing the tone from the very start, and though some of the performances, most notably by Rod Gnapp and James Wagner, connect powerfully with the world of the play, much of the cast seems adrift in Shepard’s world, which is somewhere between reality and fantasy, truth and illusion.

Gnapp plays Dodge, the patriarch of an Illinois farm family that has seen better, more prosperous (and more sane) days. Dodge is relegated to a dingy couch, where he further damages his straining lungs with cigarettes and dulls the pain with whiskey hidden under the cushions. Gnapp plays grizzled and grumpy better than just about anybody, and he masterfully conveys humor and menace in ways that allow him to live in the naturalism of Shepard’s play and its lyricism.

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The same is true of Wagner as Tilden, Dodge’s son who was once a hometown football star but then came into some mysterious trouble in New Mexico and is now a damaged shell. Tilden’s damage somehow connects him to the enigmatic side of Shepard’s play. Every time Tilden heads out into the rainy backyard, he returns with armloads of fresh corn and carrots. Never mind that no one has planted any vegetables back there for 35 years. The only thing they’ve planted, if we can believe the family legend, is an unwanted baby boy.

The surrealism of the play kicks in when Tilden’s grown son (Patrick Alparone making the best of a shallow role) shows up for a surprise visit and no one seems to recognize him, which sends the young man into a tailspin, questioning his very existence. This is where Shepard’s play starts to feel like an inferior version of Pinter’s The Homecoming, especially in this production, where actors tend to pose awkwardly, as if for soap opera cameras, and deliver their lines in stilted cadence. There are scenes that feel almost like Shepard parodies here, which adds nothing to the tone of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which should be as creepy as it is enthralling.

You can feel Shepard leaning into Pinter throughout the play, with definite nods to Albee. But Buried Child, at least in this production, feels dated, confused and underdeveloped.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child continues an extended run through Oct. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

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