Sam Shepard, author of “Buried Child” would be delighted to see his talent fully realized in the latest production at the Oklahoma City Theatre Company. Shepard is probably known best for his role as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” a role for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His talent as an actor is also reflected in his ability as a playwright. The Pulitzer Prize winning “Buried Child” is a perfect example of what happens when a talented writer has the knowledge and experience of an actor. The Oklahoma City Theatre Company production of “Buried Child” gives us an excellent cast under the direction of Doug Van Liew.
In addition to directing, Van Liew is responsible for the interesting set design. The play is performed at Civic Center in the basement space which is a thrust stage. While Van Liew does an excellent job of staging, the east section loses some of the impact that the other sections enjoy. However, the vital moments are not compromised. “Buried Child” tells the story of a rural farm family that is just as dysfunctional as any family full of ‘city kids’. Their son has returned home after some undisclosed troubles and their grandson, not realizing that his father has moved back in with the parents, stops in to visit his grandparents on his journey. Obviously he needs go no further.
The role of the father, Dodge, is superbly handled by J. Shane McClure. McClure’s vast experience over the years is apparent as he handles the mood changes and transitions of his character with such ease and care that this production becomes wonderful to watch. The audience is immediately drawn in to his character and is able to concentrate on the tragic story. Linda McDonald as Halie the mother brings a chilling warmth to the stage with her entrance. Both of these actors not only prepare the audience for the difficulties to follow, but provide an excellent basis for empathy with the audience, although they apparently have no empathy for their offspring.
Now comes their son Tilden, who is no longer able to function as a free thinking adult. Johnnie Payne brings a pathos and understanding of a man who has retreated so far into his fear he can only deal with others as a child would. This family is ridiculously warped and many of their foibles are quite amusing, yet with Tilden, the embarrassment is profoundly disturbing. Payne carries this character off exceptionally well.
The audience is relieved as grandson Vince (Daniel Leeman Smith) and girlfriend Shelley (Holly McNatt) arrive. The relief is short-lived, as these too are just as dysfunctional in their own way. Smith’s portrayal of Vince is confusing outside of the fact that Vince is confused to find his father in such unfortunate circumstances and his grandparents still not dealing with old tragedies. Smith ultimately creates a perfect character to create the disillusionment such an overlooked child will feel. He has never been able to compete with the memories of what has been lost. McNatt plays Shelley with the unspoken ‘Whatever’ hanging over the head of the audience. While the interpretation is valid and works well with the show, this attitude is wearing a little thin with the 50-plus crowd. Nevertheless her portrayal is solid, and the audience can still find some hope in her. It is primarily in her scenes with Tilden and Vince that the sight lines are problematic for anyone seated in the East section.
Craig Pruitt as Bradley gives us the most obvious villain of the piece. Pruitt’s performance is exceptionally well done as there is still a glimmer of the misunderstood little boy, yet in no way does this mitigate his extremely boorish behavior. The portrayal of a cruel, vicious villain with an artificial leg as his only support is extremely difficult and well done.
J. Collin Spring takes the role of Father Dewis. Spring gives us in his characterization a portrait of why religion has failed so many American’s. He does a nice job of the superficially superior insensitively sensitive façade that has turned so many away from the hypocrisy of organized religion.
While the show is overall pretty depressing, comedy is borne of tragedy and this show gives us a lot of wonderful labor pains. Van Liew should be commended for his efforts with excellent attendance as this is a show one should see without regret.
For ticket information contact the Civic Center Box Office located at the Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker. The telephone number is 405-297-2264. “Buried Child” can be seen through November 6, 2011.