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“Buried Child” begins with Michael Hays as Dodge onstage while an unseen Amy Rickett as his wife, Halie, yells from above a real stairway in her imagined room. Their prolonged long-distance bickering lasts long enough to be grating, perhaps an intention of assiduous director Janet Colson.
Dodge is a grizzly, phlegm-coughing and cantankerous central character on a shabby couch who clung to a blanket as he clings to life. Hays embodies the role of the sickly, disgusting and argumentative character — one that sometimes made me laugh.
Dodge never shows signs of grieving, nor do most of the unstable and volatile family members in the deteriorated farmhouse designed stylishly and smartly by Tom Ferris.
Its cage-like exterior, and the influential interior set dressings and props designed by Erica Beck and Jackie Payne, were as important to the show as any character.
When Halie finally makes her way down the long staircase, she shows no motherly grief. Halie is dressed in fancy clothes amid squalor and is more concerned with her sexual dalliances — including one with suitor, Father Dewis, played suitably by Scott Pohl in a minister’s suit. Amanda Macomber designed the distinct costumes that helped define each distinctive cast member.
Next to appear is the tobacco-spitting Jeff Magnuson in soiled overalls.
He was powerful as the demented son, Tilden. Magnuson manages to be magnificent and morose as the monumental, mentally maligned but mostly moral man. His formidable performance as a child-like, adult son is compelling.
Whenever Ben Holzhausen appears onstage as son, Bradley, he made me cringe. With an imposing creepiness, Holzhausen does a convincing job of portraying a disheveled amputee prone to explosive moments.
His heartless and physical treatments of others had the Riverwalk audience gasping. That was especially evident during his horrific electric razor wounding of Dodge, and when he brutalized Vince’s girlfriend.
Vince, the long-departed grandson who added to the confusion by showing up to reconnect with a family who would not initially acknowledge his family ties.
Connor Kelly adroitly transforms from an energetic, inquisitive intruder to an aggressive, drunken lunatic. Like his relatives, alcohol helps make Vince a bothersome figure that is often difficult to watch.
Iris Raine Paul vividly played his firecracker, rabbit coat wearing, beef bullion drinking, “vegetarian” girlfriend, Shelly. She struggles to cope with the dysfunctional family and figure out its painfully obvious “secret.” Shelly is the only sober “Buried Child” player — although her overly hyper actions suggested someone under the influence. Raine Paul moves from an annoying, frenzied loony to a more passive, accommodating and curious character.
That Shelly stays to witness the final deterioration of the family despite torturous treatment was akin to my willingness to remain in the theater. I suppressed my instincts to bolt, because I, too, couldn’t take my eyes off the actors who vividly depicted characters in descent.
Even with a gruesome climax easy to predict, I stubbornly endured two hours of unlikeable and miserable figures who frequently screamed odious and disturbing lines. When my torment stopped, unlike a James Bond martini, I left shaken — and stirred.