Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: 'Buried Child'

Dated issues still inspire laughter in this mean-spirited family drama

Review: 'Buried Child'


By Jim Rutter

In both theme and setting, Sam Shepard’s 1978 Buried Child has aged far beyond its shelf life.

In the 1970s, no-fault divorce had just begun the breakdown of the nuclear family illustrated by his play. Today, you can’t pass two people on the street without meeting a survivor of a broken home. The end of the American Dream of self-sufficiency from owning a piece of land that Shepard depicts in the barren fields of a rundown farm seems quaint compared to the painful economic recovery after the subprime bubble.

And a play about farmers, are you serious? The only farmers today’s theatergoers care about are that hipster couple that quit their graphic design jobs, remortgaged their Fishtown home and now sell overpriced cow-shares in New Jersey.

The alcoholic, adulterous, incestuous, failed farm family of Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning play hold no similar appeal.

Thankfully, the razor-sharp production at Norristown’s Iron Age Theatre turns the taut family drama of this dated piece into a perverse pleasure: that of watching mean-spirited people tear into each other (much like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

Their solid cast includes Dave Fiebert as Dodge, the now decrepit patriarch of the clan, his emotionally-stunted son Tilden (the excellent Chuck Beishl) and Eric Wunsch as Vince, the grown grandson that expects to rejoin his family lineage but finds no one recognizes him.

Randall Wise and John Doyle's direction provokes much laughter from the dark humor of people that should care for one another acting callously toward buried secrets and familial tragedy. That their malice stems from financial ruin and personal misfortune fails to inspire empathy or even sympathy.

By contrast, the decade after Shepard wrote this play still saw nationwide concern for the plight of America’s family farms (remember Farm Aid?).

Today, Monsanto, the debate over genetically modified crops, and Amish stalls in Rittenhouse Square remind us that our food comes from somewhere. And however much we can enjoy Iron Age's production, we certainly don’t want to think it’s produced by people like these.

Buried Child. Presented through April 13 at The Centre Theater, 208 DeKalb St, Norristown. Tickets: $15 to $22. Information: 610-279-1013 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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