Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" is about a family in which none of the men is whole. Dodge, the ailing paterfamilias, spends his days hacking and wheezing on the couch. His oldest son, Tilden, has gotten into some unspecified trouble in New Mexico that left him slow-witted; a second son, Bradley, mangled his legs in a chain saw accident; a third son, Ansel, is dead.
Winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, "Buried Child" is probably Shepard's best known work, but that doesn't mean it's easily accessible -- or producible. And, like the play's characters, Everyman Theatre's production -- staged in cooperation with the Rep Stage Company in Columbia and directed by Vincent Lancisi -- isn't completely whole, either. The performances are uneven, but the variances are on the upper end of the scale, from competent to excellent.
More significantly, this inaugural production in Everyman's new home is indicative of the company's potential. Producing director Lancisi's solid directorial skills were demonstrated during Everyman's nomadic days, and now they have a place to flourish. (The potential of the theater's flexible space is less apparent since Lancisi has started out with proscenium staging; more interesting configurations are promised later in the season.)
Here's a telling example of Everyman's savvy. In the script, Bradley has a wooden leg. Lancisi, however, has cast Rob McQuay, an actor paralyzed from the waist down. In keeping with the family's mean streak, Lancisi and McQuay find more threatening ways to use the actor's wheelchair than anything Shepard suggested for Bradley's wooden leg.
The production shines in subtler respects as well. Dysfunctional as this family may be, it does have one seemingly normal member -- Dodge's grandson, Vince, who arrives home unexpectedly after six years, accompanied by his seemingly normal girlfriend, Shelly. From what Scott Rinker's easy-going Vince has told her, Shelly -- empathetically played by Jacqueline Underwood -- expects to meet a family out of a Norman Rockwell painting. What she finds comes closer to a cross between science fiction and Greek tragedy.
Yet, in the end, a new and suddenly violent Vince elects to take his place in this family. His decision is announced in a long speech in which he describes looking at his reflection and seeing the reflections of all the generations that came before. In the show's final image, Lancisi and lighting designer Ted Doyle give this speech a stunning visual counterpart, spotlighting the faces of Vince and Dodge, which are positioned so close together they almost blend. When Center Stage produced this play in 1986, it put a positive spin on Vince's decision. At Everyman, it's anything but.
The heritage Vince embraces would be even scarier if James Pollard were a more convincing Dodge. Instead of a once-tough Midwestern farmer, Pollard seems citified; his vocal inflections sound more like New York City than rural Illinois. In the next generation, however, McQuay's malevolent Bradley and Timmy Ray James' dim Tilden both display genuine creepiness. And, as Dodge's falsely pious wife, Vivienne Shub has the prim but disturbed demeanor of a Tennessee Williams heroine.
Besides its lack of "wholeness," this family has a mysterious secret. Crops are suddenly growing in fields where nothing's been planted for years -- not since the disappearance of a baby no one wants to talk about. The buried child of the title once seemed rather surreal to me. But Everyman's gala opening was held the night after Susan Vaughan Smith confessed to killing her two small children, and the play took on an eerie resonance. Shepard's refusal to fully explain the mystery may have been intended as stimulating dramaturgy, but current events have rendered the inexplicable all too real.
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27; no performance Thanksgiving. Through Nov. 27
Call: (410) 752-2208