In Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, his people improvise like jazz soloists.
  • In Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, his people improvise like jazz soloists.
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During intermission at New Village Arts’ opening night of Buried Child, a patron said, “I’m confused.”

Another replied, “Don’t worry. You’ve been paying attention.”

Asked to describe what some have called a masterpiece, Sam Shepard joked, “It’s sort of a typical Pulitzer Prize–winning play.” He was half-right. In 1979, Buried Child won the Pulitzer for drama. But typical? Not a chance.

Some characters resemble others: Halie, the mother, sounds like Amanda Wingfield recalling jonquils and gentlemen escorts in The Glass Menagerie. Her half-mute son Tilden — who has either “lost his marbles” or just misplaced them — acts like a cross between Lennie in Of Mice and Men and Biff, the jock gone to seed in Death of a Salesman. Associations flicker behind other characters. But they serve, at best, as entries to a play that severs all ties with the familiar and with attempts to pin its mysteries down.

The first stage direction’s a dead giveaway: Shepard wants stairs going “up to the wings with no landing.”

Like a tour through the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose (where Mrs. Winchester ordered carpenters to build, nonstop, in all directions), Buried Child thrives on contradictions and cul-de-sacs. In fact, it’s as if Shepard hands you the script and says: “Here are the elements of a Pulitzer-worthy drama. You write it. Good hunting.”

Dodge, the decrepit patriarch, says his family has lived on the farm — in Illinois? — 57 years. Long ago, an event entombed the clan in collective amnesia. Dodge, Halie, and sons Tilden and Bradley refuse to remember, but can’t forget, an unthinkable horror. “Everything canceled out by this one mistake,” says the aptly named Dodge (an unartful dodger who can’t escape his past). The family’s so squelched emotionally, they often don’t recognize each other.

Tilden’s son Vince, who’s been away for six years, stops by with girlfriend Shelly. Given his yummy descriptions of the family, she expects Norman Rockwell: “turkey dinners and apple pie.” Instead she stumbles into American Gothic — and beyond. “This is taboo territory,” Vince yells at her toward the end. “No man or woman has ever crossed the line and lived to tell the tale!” And as he shouts the warning, you can almost see an unseen hand yank Vince back into the vortex.

Shelly, the outsider, vows to sleuth the mystery. Something was buried out back, where corn or carrots haven’t grown since 1935 — and are suddenly sprouting. In a sense, she becomes Shepard’s playwright. Good hunting, Shelly.

Nancy Meckler, who directed the play years ago, made an astute comment about Buried Child. “Sam isn’t writing about people who are crazy; he’s writing about people under stress. They’re doing what they’re doing for real reasons, usually avoidance.”

The acting at New Village Arts ranges from some under palpable stress, to some trying desperately to seem crazy. Of the former, Manny Fernandes earned a Craig Noel Award for his portrayal of Lennie in New Village’s Of Mice and Men. As Tilden, Fernandes does an interesting thing — he is Tilden first and foremost: lost, numb, trying to honor the family’s Gag Rule. But he shows flashes of his Lennie, as when Tilden fondles a coat made of rabbit fur. In effect, Shepard and Fernandes doubly reference Lennie — with verbal and visual recollections — then go back about their business.

Fernandes also creates the sense, crucial for doing Shepard, that he hasn’t a clue what comes next. As Dodge, Jack Missett does the opposite. There is nothing spontaneous or internal in this performance. Even the cartoony eye-rolling and relentless mugging look as planned in advance as the heavy red make-up under his eyes. Dodge, like a half-sunk battleship, has been under such pressure he could implode at any moment. Instead, Missett makes him superficially crazy, a goofy second banana.

The other performances fall somewhere in between. Kelly Iverson — who has grown as an actor! — does some fine work as Shelly, though she could kick her ferocity up another notch when the time comes. On opening night, Adam Brick found Vince’s leonine ferocity at the end.

In the late ’70s, Shepard used what he called a “halfway in the dark” style. He created “open” characters, with no through-line, and composed by intuition, not knowing where he would go next. He had the craft to structure the play as he went, but his people improvise like jazz soloists.

One of his best “halfway” characters, Halie, rarely appears onstage. She’s a voice beyond the end of the stairs, and her words beam on and off like a lighthouse. Or should. The usually reliable Dana Case hurries through Halie’s sentences and omits the spaces in between.

Shepard gives explicit, detailed, even fussy stage directions. Tim Wallace’s scenic and sound designs match them. Aided by Chris Renda’s ominous lighting, the set looks as dilapidated — and near death — as Dodge. Grimy, broken slats for walls and beat-up furniture locate the set somewhere between real and abstract, or, in Shepard’s terminology, “halfway in the dark.” ■

Buried Child, by Sam Shepard

New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad

Directed by Lisa Berger; cast: Jack Missett, Dana Case, Manny Fernandes, Samuel Sherman, Kelly Iverson, Adam Brick, John DeCarlo; scenic and sound design, Tim Wallace; lighting, Chris Renda; costumes, Kristianne Kurner and Allyson Francis

Playing through April 22; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245

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