All unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, and American theater has fonr its best to depict as many of them as possible. As Robert Isenberg notes in this week's CP review (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A75327) of this Point Park REP production, Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer-winner is one in a long line of such plays. (Many of them, of course, are by Shepard himself.)
But we keep getting such plays not just because family strife makes good theater. We keep getting them, and watching them, because it's still true that dysfunctional families don't just keep secrets from each other. They also share fictions about who each family member is, how to to interpret the past, and even what that past factually was. Plays like Buried Child are about chipping away at that shared mythology, and what happens when it crashes down (or doesn't). This Shepard work merely does it with more Gothic brio than most.
The REP's Buried Child ropes you in with Michael Thomas Essad's set, an epically rat-chewed incarnation of a decrepit Illinois farmhouse. Half the characters are mad (but not necessarily crazy), and most are damaged in some significant way. And the true dramatic catalyst isn't even Vince, the son (and grandson) who returns unannounced to reclaim his dubious roots. It's his girlfriend, Shelly, who's even more of an outsider than he, and thus free to question and ultimately fray the slender threads of falsehood that are the only things holding together a family that really shouldn't be held together any more.
The show is well-acted by a cast of seven that includes Broadway veteran Stephen Mendillo as Dodge, the curmudgeonly alcoholic patriarch, and smartly directed by John Shepard. I particularly tuned to one visual motif, one that at different points in the action had several different characters cradling in their arms items that had at those moments become important to them.
Sometimes this was quirkily comical, as when Shelly (Kiley Caughey) embraces a large bunch of muddy carrots she's volunteered to slice. As with other iterations of the gesture, she simultaneously goes so far as to protectively turn her back on every other character on stage. It's a childlike gesture, and one that foreshadows the play's eerie and wordless climax. And its suggestion of small bundles of comfort literally held dear poetically gets to the heart of Shepard's depiction of how the things we cling to for survival can also be the very things that ultimately destroy us.
Buried Child concludes with five more performances today through Sun., Feb. 21.