Writers Theatre delivers superb revival of unsettling 'Buried Child'

  • Larry Yando plays Dodge, patriarch of a dysfunctional Illinois family, in Writers Theatre's revival of "Buried Child" by Sam Shepard.

    Larry Yando plays Dodge, patriarch of a dysfunctional Illinois family, in Writers Theatre's revival of "Buried Child" by Sam Shepard. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane) observes his sleeping father Dodge (Larry Yando), covered by corn husks, in Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" at Writers Theatre.

    Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane) observes his sleeping father Dodge (Larry Yando), covered by corn husks, in Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" at Writers Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 5/24/2018 6:26 AM

"Buried Child" -- ★ ★ ★

If "Sweeney Todd," Stephen Sondheim's gruesome musical about a vengeful barber turned serial murderer, is a "season killer" as a colleague once suggested, Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" is the interment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The title, which is no misnomer, likely gives pause to those unacquainted with Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning gothic tale of a rural Illinois family haunted by decades-old secrets. The 1978 play pairs a dysfunctional family drama and black comedy with elements of the fantastical and the absurd. "Buried Child" is an acquired taste, but considering director Kimberly Senior's towering Writers Theatre revival, it's a production worth savoring. The superb performances alone make the trip to Glencoe worthwhile.

Shepard, a Fort Sheridan native who died last year at age 73, was known for his unflinching examinations of the demise of the American dream and the anguish of the American family. The well-crafted "Buried Child" is both.

Death hangs over this drama like a cloud -- as gray and foreboding as the backdrop to set designer Jack Magaw's deteriorating farmhouse surrounded by a ruined fence and fallow fields.

According to patriarch Dodge, the farm has produced nothing for decades -- unless you count rage and resentment, which this family has in abundance.

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Shannon Cochran and Larry Yando return to Writers Theatre for its revival of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child."
Shannon Cochran and Larry Yando return to Writers Theatre for its revival of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Much of the action centers around the ailing Dodge. Literally. A broken father to his damaged sons, Dodge (the masterfully dyspeptic Larry Yando, at the top of his game) spends much of the play on a sagging sofa in a living room where no one really lives.

Senior's accomplished cast includes the ever-formidable Shannon Cochran as Dodge's perpetually disappointed wife Hallie, who takes comfort in the arms of Allen Gilmore's less-than-pious Father Dewis.

The excellent Mark L. Montgomery plays the couple's oldest son Tilden, who recently returned home after 20 years following some unexplained trouble in New Mexico. Montgomery's hunched shoulders, bowed head and raised eyebrows suggest a man-child, deeply wounded yet capable of great tenderness. There's nothing tender, however, about younger brother Bradley (a chilling, complex Timothy Edward Kane), who lost his leg in a chain saw accident of his own making. Making a surprise visit is Tilden's son Vince (the adrift Shane Kenyon) and his girlfriend Shelly (a nicely grounded Arti Ishak). But Vince doesn't receive the homecoming he expected or the Norman Rockwell scene Shelly has imagined. Instead, his father and grandfather claim they don't know him. which further unmoors a young man who desperately wants his family's recognition.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Vince (Shane Kenyon), left, and his girlfriend, Shelly (Arti Ishak), return after six years to Vince's family home where neither his grandfather (Larry Yando), second from left, nor his father, (Mark L. Montgomery), right, remembers him in Writers Theatre's revival of "Buried Child."
Vince (Shane Kenyon), left, and his girlfriend, Shelly (Arti Ishak), return after six years to Vince's family home where neither his grandfather (Larry Yando), second from left, nor his father, (Mark L. Montgomery), right, remembers him in Writers Theatre's revival of "Buried Child." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Early on, Senior and her all-star cast establish an ominous mood and, with a few minor exceptions, keep the tension simmering over three acts lasting nearly three hours. Especially satisfying are the scenes with Yando, Cochran, Montgomery and Kane, whose exchanges often feel as if they are about to boil over.

Senior and company make it impossible to look away, almost as if they've grabbed your upper arm and forced you to confront the corruption. The experience drained some audience members and left others with their mouths agape.

"I'm exhausted," remarked a woman behind me before the third act. "But I'm not leaving."

Neither did anyone else.

• • •

Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through June 17. Some 3 p.m. Wednesday matinees

Tickets: $35-$80

Running time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermissions

Parking: Street parking available

Rating: For adults; contains unsettling themes, references to incest and murder

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