Buried Child, first performed in 1978, feels like it was written for the dog days of 2016. Sam Shepherd’s quietly crushing portrait of entropy and despair is concerned with those disillusioned white working classes that have dominated the news agenda since 8 November.
It’s about the death of the American dream in the wake of economic collapse, and how the hopes of a generation can wither on the vine.
It centres on Dodge, an ageing all-American patriarch who has grown weak and impotent, a pitiable figure propped up with whisky and prescription pills. Even before the audience arrives he inhabits a sofa that dominates the stage, never straying far from its comforting presence.
His world is a crumbling house in the Midwest and a barren plot of land where nothing has grown for decades. His slow ride towards death is encroached upon by his wonderfully irritating wife Halie and their two surviving sons, Tilden and Bradley, the first mentally scarred to the point of catatonia, the second missing a leg after a chainsaw accident.
What starts out as a realist drama begins to introduce elements of the surreal – when Dodge’s grandson pops in for an unexpected visit, for instance, the family claims to have no memory of him, as if the world outside their scrap of land has ceased to exist. Tilden, meanwhile, has a habit of finding fresh vegetables growing in the family’s stagnant field.
Laden with symbolism, there’s a Pinter-esque quality to Buried Child, and Scott Elliott’s production is in no rush, allowing the nuances to sink in; two intervals help to re-set the tension.
A gruff, wheezing Ed Harris, fresh from his role in the excellent Westworld, is the top-billed talent, but he’s ably supported by a uniformly brilliant cast that includes Amy Madigan – his on-stage and real-life wife – and Game of Thrones’ Charlotte Hope as Shelly, the girlfriend of Dodge’s grandson. The play’s sole voice of reason, Shelly is the audience’s mole in the house, helping us to work out what the hell is going on with this terrible family.
Buried Child is the perfect prelude to the upcoming presidency: chilling, tense and horribly mesmerising, it builds towards a conclusion you just know is going to haunt you for years to come. It’s fitting that in a year in which Trump is Time’s Person of the Year, so Buried Child is a contender for play of the year.
First published in City A.M.