"Buried Child," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play from Sam Shepard, premiered in 1978 and confronts the false ideal of the American dream and the Norman Rockwell model family. Tad Janes, who is directing McDaniel College's production of the play, said that in the intervening years the play has lost none of its initial power.
"It's not a dated play at all. It's got a lot of universal themes going on about family and relationships, about abandonment and about family lineage," Janes said. "It's interesting to be working on these themes with the students."
Janes, a visiting director from the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, is mounting a production of "Buried Child" for McDaniel College starting Wednesday. He said the play was chosen to contrast with the other shows McDaniel was putting on this semester.
"Because they're doing 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' next, and that's got a lot of people in it, they asked if we could pick a play that didn't have a huge cast," Janes said. "We wanted to find something that would complement their other choices, so we were looking for contemporary plays. I've long been a fan of Sam Shepard, so I pitched several of his."
The play features a cast of seven — a five-member family and two outsiders who are given a view into their dysfunctional lives. The play follows the character Vince as he returns to his family home with his girlfriend, Shelly, in tow. Once home, the characters must confront a slew of family secrets.
Though the show tackles the grim topics of incest and infanticide, Janes said the show has a core of humor that keeps the play from becoming too overbearing. Janes said the show's humor can be traced back to Shepard's trademark dialogue.
"He's a writer that sounds like nobody else. He was born in Illinois, but he grew up in the desert of southern California, so he's got a real Midwestern and Southwestern sensibility about him," Janes said. "His perspective is kind of a lower-middle class kind of cowboy attitude that plays into that. He's got a lot of family dysfunction in his life, which plays into many of his plays."
Sarah Hull, a senior from Keedysville, who plays Halie, the family's matriarch, said it was the show's peculiar mix of humor and horror that first attracted her to the part.
"I love the play in that it gives you this sprinkling of dark humor along with these ideas that are hard to take," Hull said. "I think it will surprise the audience in that way. It's not a happy play, but you'll find yourself laughing in between scenes of people burying their souls. That contrast is something that pulls you in."
Najee Banks, a senior from Baltimore, who plays the role of Father Dewis, an alcoholic and womanizing priest, said his role can be considered the comic relief of the piece. Banks said he was initially wary of auditioning for the play.
"At first I wasn't going to audition because I had just finished working on something else, and I didn't want to jump back into rehearsals again," Banks said. "The show is being directed by Tad Janes, though, and I've had people tell me that if you have the opportunity to work with him, you take it."
Janes said he was concerned about casting the show with student actors because it requires the young adults to play characters in their 60s and 70s. Hull said she has been working on how to best portray the 65-year-old Halie.
"It definitely has been a challenge. A lot of my focus has been on vocalization as well as physical work," Hull said. "I've been doing a lot of research on old women in heels. By research, I of course mean I've been doing a lot of people-watching."
Janes said that in addition to the peculiar tone of the piece, he and the actors had to work through some of the surreal aspects of the show.
"When we first had a read through, they were all a little skeptical because the play can be a little surreal at times. Once you get into the nitty-gritty about why the characters do what they do and want what they want and behave how they behave, you find that this is the way some damaged people relate to one another," Janes said. "It's been a really good fact-finding mission for them and a discovery of process. They're learning how this play differs from something like 'My Fair Lady.'"
Banks said that rehearsals have been tough but enjoyable and that he's learned a lot working with the director.
"I feel like sometimes, because of my character's late entrance, I feel the need to do things that will make audiences laugh," Banks said. "Instead though, Tad told me to play the realness of the moments and the comedy will come through naturally. Some of the lines are meant to be delivered a certain way, but there are some things I do on stage that are not meant for a laugh but can be funny because the show is so dark."
The process of putting together the production began at the beginning of the school year, and Janes said he's eager to hand off the show to the audience.
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"As a director, the process is the job; the production is not the job," Janes said. "I've had a great time working with these students and working with the design team, but when opening night comes, I'm essentially done and it's really up to the stage manager and the performers, so I'm looking forward to that transition and [to] see the students take over."
If you go
What: "Buried Child"
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Where: Alumni Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill Road, Westminster
Cost: Tickets are $7 general admission and $5 for seniors and students.
For more information: Visit http://www.mcdaniel.edu or call 410-857-2448.