BURIED CHILD (Iron Age): Decay and Dysfunction in America’s Heartland

Eric Wunsch is Vince and Gina Martino is Shelly in Iron Age Theatre’s BURIED CHILD (Photo credit: Randall Wise)

Eric Wunsch is Vince and Gina Martino is Shelly in Iron Age Theatre’s BURIED CHILD (Photo credit: Randall Wise)

From the moment you arrive, Iron Age Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s BURIED CHILD, directed and designed by John Doyle and Randall Wise, thrusts you into a deeply disturbing world of grime, decay, and depression. Mounds of barren dirt, wood chips, and dried-out stalks surround and invade a tumbledown farmhouse with a rusted old mailbox that hasn’t seen a delivery in years. Inside, a filthy stained sofa with torn-up upholstery and torn-out stuffing is held together by black duct tape, as huge gaps between the rough-hewn wall slats let in the pouring rain and dreary darkness of a relentless storm.

The stage is potently set for Shepard’s vision of the deterioration of the American nuclear family and its traditional values, the loss of hope in the American dream, and the devastating effects of economic hardship on America’s rural heartland. Combining tragedy with black comedy, realism with surrealism, and the American myth with metaphor, the disquieting three-act play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979, is not for the faint of heart; but it is for anyone who appreciates brilliant writing, arcane symbolism, and full immersion into a post-modern environment that is both repellant and familiar—an American Gothic gone very, very wrong.

“There’s no honor in self-destruction” rants Halie (Michelle Pauls) at her dying alcoholic husband Dodge (Dave Fiebert), as he lights up a cigarette and chokes on its suffocating smoke; the stress between them is palpable in the actors’ acrimonious speech and long-suffering attitudes. As the brutal drama begins to unfold, their grown sons Tilden (Chuck Beishl), who is mentally challenged and emotionally unstable, and Bradley (Luke Moyer), an amputee who cut off his own leg in a chainsaw accident, hint at dark family secrets long buried but soon to resurface. With the arrival of Tilden’s son Vince (Eric Wunsch), at first unrecognized by his own father and grandfather, the tensions erupt into full-blown savagery, glass flies, and the stench of cheap liquor fills the theater. Now remembered by his elders, Vince assumes his place in the violently dysfunctional clan, the significance of the title is revealed, and the proverbial skeletons are no longer hidden in the closet.

The ensemble’s fully committed portrayals of the unsettling family are painful, brutal, and riveting. Rounding out the powerful cast are Ray Saraceni as the morally lax and laughably ineffectual Reverend Dewis, and Gina Martino as Vince’s girlfriend Shelly, who soon comes to realize that his childhood home is no “Norman Rockwell cover,”  but an American nightmare of family ties that should not bind. March 21-April 13, 2014; www.ironagetheatre.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.