Performing Arts

Buried Child


Presented by State Theatre Company of SA
Reviewed Thursday 15th September 2011

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: to Sat 2nd October various days and times, see the BASS web site for details
Duration: 2hrs 40min incl interval
Tickets: adult $49/conc $42/under 30s $29
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or

Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer prizewinning play, Buried Child, is the latest offering from State Theatre, under the direction of David Mealor. Like a lot of Shepard's writing, it is a strange beast, mixing black comedy with drama and Oedipal tragedy, realism with surrealism and symbolism. Mealor is right at home here, having had great success not long ago directing Shepard's True West, to both critical and audience acclaim. His knowledge of Shepard's approach to theatre and his experience from that previous production, along with a well selected cast, ensured the success of this production.

The curtain rises on Mary Moore's set, a room in a building that is in an advanced state of decay, an enclosed verandah behind, and a long staircase to the fore, with only a few sticks of worn out furniture. Mark Pennington's lighting reflects the dinginess of the room, worsened by the pouring rain outside. Throughout the performance his lighting is carefully designed to depict not only the time of day and the weather, but also the changing moods of the play. Composer, Quentin Grant's music fits like a glove, accentuating the action and emotional content of the play.

On the settee is Dodge, 70, immobile, smoking, drinking, coughing, doing little but watching television, scruffily dressed and slowly dying. Upstairs, out of sight, is his wife, Halie, calling down to him and forcing him to repeat everything he says in reply to her questions. We realise that they live in their own physically separate worlds, Halie only ever coming downstairs to leave the house. The other resident is their recently returned son, Tilden, physically powerful, but mentally lightweight. Something happened and he got into trouble in New Mexico.

Tilden brings in an armful of corn cobs and Dodge berates him for stealing them. Dodge has not planted anything for over thirty years, so they could not have come from their own farm. Tilden brings his stool in and sits near Dodge, husking the corn. Halie descends and, after an interchange of sharp words, leaves the house to meet Reverend Dewis. As Dodge sleeps on the settee, their other son, Bradley, limps in and shaves Dodge's head, as instructed by Halie. Bradley lost a leg in a chainsaw accident and wears a prosthetic leg.

The second act opens and into this situation comes Tilden's musician son, Vince, and his girlfriend, Shelly. Their expectations of visiting the family on the country farm for a pleasant lunch are far from what they encounter. Dodge and Tilden even seem to deny knowing Vince. Eventually, Vince leaves to buy more alcohol for Dodge, leaving Shelly behind. Tilden now carries in an armful of carrots and Shelley begins to prepare them for the pot. Bradley then returns, chases Tilden away, and bullies and humiliates her.

In the third act Halie returns, accompanied by the amorous Reverend, and discovers Shelly, who then asserts her inner strength, taking Bradley's false leg away from him, leaving him helpless, and revealing that, like most bullies, he is a coward at heart. Shelly presses for answers, and eventually the shocking truth is revealed. Vince returns and admits that he was not planning to come back, but changed his mind, Halie retreats upstairs and Shelly departs, leaving Vince to deal with his family. Tilden enters with yet another 'harvest', which he takes upstairs to Halie. The old order changes.

Veteran actor, Ron Haddrick, gives a truly masterful performance as the well named, Dodge. This is a huge role as he never leaves the stage. Hadrick gives us a brilliantly complex characterisation of a wily old bird, who knows how to manipulate those around him and who lies continually to get his own way, without the slightest compunction.

As Halie, Jacqy Phillips gives us a fine example of the term 'mutton dressed up as lamb' as Halie flounces and flirts with the Protestant minister, the Reverend Dewis, trying hard to regain her youth. Phillips switches between shrew and coquette with ease, nicely balancing Hadrick's Dodge.

Nicholas Garsden shines as the mentally damaged Tilden, not only in his wonderfully measured way of speaking but in every move, gesture, facial expression and his whole demeanour. His performance is so believable that, by the final curtain, it is hard to imagine anybody else playing the role.

Patrick Graham goes from a menacing, overbearing oaf to a cowering, childlike state, curled in a foetal position under the stairs. This is the most varied role that I have seen him play and he is completely convincing, whether playing mind games with Shelly or begging at the feet of Vince.

Tim Overton's performance as Vince takes him from a carefree saxophonist, who plans to visit his grandparents on the way to see his father in New Mexico, through a state of frustration and confusion as both his father and grandfather seem unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge him, to fear and, ultimately, to a position of power. Overton rises to this challenge in a well crafted interpretation of the role.

Hannah Norris plays Shelly, the catalyst for the collapse of everything the family has been trying to hold together, and the revelation of the secret they have tried to forget for thirty years. Like Vince, Shelly is initially disturbed, later scared stiff, then becomes assertive and commanding. This is another difficult role, handled with apparent ease in a terrific characterisation. Her accent, although quite authentic Los Angeles, is rather more that of 2011 than 1978.

Patrick Frost completes the cast as the Protestant minister, Reverend Dewis, who is theologically unsound, ineffectual and lecherous, and eager to make himself scarce when things start to get uncomfortable. Frost presents us with a rather pathetic figure of a failed man, out of his depth and at the mercy of Halie's wiles.

Mealor has worked his ensemble into an all too believably dysfunctional group of people who,nonetheless, need each other and their shared acceptance to forget the secret of the past in order to function at all. This is one for your diary and it would be wise to book soon, as patrons are being very positive in their comments and word is spreading fast.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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