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THEATER REVIEW: “Buried Child” by Sam Shepard is a challenging play

I often feel like I need a bath after a Sam Shepard play, and “Buried Child” is no exception.

The specter of a dead child, a question of identity and extreme family dysfunction haunt this 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner, in shifting patterns of memory, reality and delusion.

Lisa Berger directs the bleak and creepy black comedy “Buried Child” through April 22 at New Village Arts Theatre.

In a dilapidated farmhouse somewhere in Illinois, an old man named Dodge (Jack Missett), thin and frail, sits drinking himself to death on a couch in front of a seldom-watched but flickering TV.

There is a sense of weariness about Dodge, an exhaustion mirrored in the decaying house (wonderfully designed by Tim Wallace) and evidenced by the cough he seems to have had for ages.

Dodge is not alone. From upstairs and out of sight, Dodge’s wife Halie (Dana Case) shouts at him in her part of an argument that will never end because neither party is really listening. Halie broods over disappointment in her children (and sadness over the one who died) and philanders with the local minister when she’s not hiding out in the crucifix-laden room upstairs.

Eldest son Tilden (Manny Fernandes), mentally and emotionally scarred by events at home predating an unhappy time in New Mexico, has recently returned to the homestead, a lost soul.

Tilden’s younger brother Bradley (Samuel Sherman), a violence-prone hulk of a man who lost a leg to a chainsaw, terrorizes all who will allow it.

When Tilden sloshes into the house carrying an armful of fresh corn picked in the backyard, Dodge is prompted to deny the existence of corn on the farm (“There hasn’t been corn out there since about 1935,” he says), setting the scene for Shepard’s bleakly comic reflections on family, the American dream, reality and illusion. Tilden will later harvest carrots and a much less savory item from that same garden.

Dodge’s denial carries over to an unexpected second-act visit from Tilden’s son Vince (Adam Brick), a 20-something musician, who shows up with pretty girlfriend Shelly (Kelly Iversen). Seriously strange goings-on ensue, beginning with grandpa Dodge’s failure to recognize the boy.

Missett dominates as the skeletal Dodge, who even with all his great lines gives the impression that he’d just as soon check out of this Bates Motel.

Fernandes’ Tilden is heartbreaking, though at the beginning his performance seemed a bit too reminiscent of another of his fine characterizations, Lenny in “Of Mice And Men.” As the play progressed, Fernandes found Tilden’s uniqueness.

Sherman (who lost a leg in a 2005 accident) is properly frightening as Bradley, but difficult to watch when he gets his comeuppance.

Case is always a welcome presence, though here she seemed to speed through some of her monologues.

Brick and Iversen inject welcome youthful energy into the production. Iversen’s Shelly tries to ingratiate herself into this family until she just can’t take it anymore. Brick makes Vince’s transformation from confusion to king of the hill both amusing and sad to watch.

Shepard is an acquired taste, and “Buried Child” in particular is close to a horror story about seriously twisted folks. It’s not for all playgoers, but if you’re up for challenging drama, this is, as Kristianne Kurner noted, “the granddaddy of them all.”

The details

“Buried Child” runs through April 22 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (760) 433-3245 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.