By Skyler Ashley
“Buried Child,” the legendary play that earned its creative mind Sam Shepard the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979, comes to Riverwalk Theatre this weekend. Director Janet Colson said she was enthralled to take the reins of an original Shepard production.
“His persona’s so interesting. As an actor and an artist he’s this very sexy, interesting, dynamic, and outrageously creative person.” Colson said.
Shepard, a playwright renegade, left behind an insurmountable legacy in the wake of his death last year. Shepard was a creative mammoth, whose work explored the human condition without shying away from the warts of it all.
One who imagines theater as lighter affair needs only to peruse the works of Shepard to feel a crushing impact typically reserved for horror films. But that’s not to say his work strictly mires in the dark. Shepard’s ability to incorporate biting humor in spite of the subject matter made his plays seem all the more human.
“There’s definitely humor. It’s almost an absurd thing,” Colson said. “Those moments really cement the humanity for me. I wouldn’t do the play if it didn’t have those veins of humor in it.”
“Buried Child” spins the tale of a broken family whose lives have gone awry. Poverty is inflicted upon them after years of farming unsuccessfully, but that is just a blip in the series of misfortunes that have befallen them. One son loses a limb to a chainsaw accident, another is murdered by his own wife, and the patriarch of the family has slowly rendered himself into a blithering alcoholic.
“If I want to get people into the seats, I tell them it’s a horror play,” said Connor Kelly, who plays Vince. “But it’s not necessarily jump out of your seat horror, as much as it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s very suspenseful.”
Kelly said it can be hard for an actor to tap into the more macabre themes running throughout the play.
“It’s hard. This is definitely one of the hardest scripts I think most actors do,” Kelly said. “It’s difficult just trying to get into the rhythm of the character, because it’s such a dark play.”
Despite the pitch black palette Shepard often paints with, Kelly finds himself closely relating to his character. In fact, Kelly said many are able to relate to the characters of “Buried Child,” even if their circumstances aren’t as extreme. Colson believes the dysfunction and grittiness that seemed shocking in 1979 has become more commonplace, and Americans are somewhat desensitized to it.
Colson tried to bring “Buried Child” to Riverwalk Theatre in May 2017 as a black box production, but another Shepard play, “Fool for Love,” had already been booked.
A few short months later, Shepard would lose his battle with ALS. The cast and crew of “Buried Child” now have an opportunity to pay tribute to Shepard, as this is Riverwalk Theatre’s first production of one of his originals since his death last June.
“I liked the idea of ‘Buried Child’ as a black box,” Colson said. “But when I resubmitted it, I realized I could do more with the design of the show. We’ve got a great designer and I wanted the play on the main stage.”
“Buried Child” at Riverwalk Theatre
Jan. 18–21 and Jan. 25–28 Tickets start at $10