The American Dream. The theme that won’t go away. With just under two months to go until Election Day, we are all once again thinking about, arguing over and choosing between two versions of what the American Dream should and can be. That this year’s two versions are so remarkably different only serves to make the discussion more stridently urgent as we huff and puff over which take on the national ethos is correct. How fitting then that two of our city’s theater companies, Catastrophic Theatre and 4th Wall Theatre Company, have chosen to open their respective seasons with a playwright who thinks that the American Dream, no matter the version, is a load of bunk.
Sam Shepard, while considered one of America’s greatest living playwrights, has spent his more than half a century of work puncturing, deriding, blowing up and firmly pulling the rug out from under any type of ideal American existence. More specifically, Shepard has sharpened his suspicious pencil against the American Dream’s central pivot point, the ideal American family. Indeed, it’s two distinctly anti-mythological and analogous families that we meet as Catastrophic presents Buried Child and 4th Wall stages True West.
“What happened to this family?” asks the young and beautiful outsider Shelly (played with charming calm in the storm by Candice D’Meza) in the run-up to the climax scene in Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning 1979 dark tragicomedy Buried Child. It’s the same question we’ve been asking ourselves as we watch and at times laugh at this absurdly wretched rural family that’s suffocating in its own disability and whose members torture each other in the process.
There’s the cantankerous, wheezing, couch-potato patriarch, Dodge (a sublime Rutherford Cravens), who is able to bark mockingly at those around him while begging for his whisky, but hasn’t managed to tend to the family farm or plant one single crop for years. His wife, Halie (Carolyn Houston Boone conjuring equal parts shrew, shrill and shattered), is more interested in stepping out with the Priest (Charlie Scott) than nattering at her husband or belittling her grown sons. Not that the boys don’t deserve to be treated like useless creatures. Tilden (Greg Dean) used to be some kind of local football star, but now is reduced to a brain of near mush and the emotional skittishness of a beaten kitten. Other brother Bradley (Kyle Sturdivant) is the literally disabled one of the bunch, having lost his leg (and it seems much of his decorum) in an accident.
When Tilden’s long-absent son Vince shows up (a shallow Dayne Lathrop) with his girlfriend, Shelly, and no one knows who he is or even acknowledges that a son/grandson exists, we know that whatever Shepard envisions haunting this family, it is both appalling and theatrically absurd. And in true Shepard form, the family will have brought it on themselves, in this case thanks to a good dose of paternal jealousy and maternal taboo breaking.
Which is not to say the family secret in the play is much of a mystery. It’s called Buried Child, after all, although it does take some time for the story to reveal the hows and whys of the title. What doesn’t take much time to grasp, however, is both the dated feel of the play and how hit-and-miss director Jeff Miller’s helming of the production is.
Shepard wrote the play in 1979 as a riff on Eugene O’Neill’s similarly themed and populated Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However, instead of O’Neill’s deep psychological character backstories, Shepard drops us right into the action without any context as to why these folks are the way they are. What’s the trouble Tilden got into in New Mexico? Where did Vince come from and why doesn’t anyone remember him? Why does Bradley keep violently cutting his sleeping father’s hair? What does it matter, Shepard attempts to convince us; isn’t a dead baby enough of an explanation? For late-’70s post-modern theater, those missing pieces were newly exciting. Today, the lack of character development and motivation feels quaintly retro at best and at worst plays like a clunky throwback, frustrating in either case.
At his best, Miller (in his directorial debut) ushers us thrillingly through Dodge’s arias of manic coughing, spewed anger and doled-out nuggets of truth. But Miller gets tripped up in allowing Dean to lean too heavily on a physical performance of tics and limps in his portrayal of Tilden. More problematic is Miller’s unwise decision not to rein in Sturdivant’s bug-eyed and broad clowning as Bradley, which saps much of the tension out of what are supposed to be the uncomfortable final few revealing scenes. Shepard wants us to laugh, sure, but he wants his audience to squirm as well.
Shepard also wants us to note that the broken parts of our relatives are the damaged parts in ourselves. Driving to reunite with the family that is rejecting his existence in Buried Child, Vince looks in the rear-view mirror and sees his face morphing into those of his father and grandfather. In True West, written just a year later, Shepard gives us two polar-opposite brothers who, by play’s end, become each other and then something rottenly shared.
This tale of dual nature is given a ferociously funny and electrifying production at 4th Wall under the meaty direction of Kim Tobin-Lehl, who heads a cast expertly able to jump neck deep into Shepard’s simmering-to-a-boil world.
The play is set in the suburban California home the brothers grew up in, and considers an intense sibling rivalry. There’s Austin, a straitlaced, uptight Ivy League graduate, a family man and a screenwriter (played with transformative finesse and impressive range by Nick Farco), and older brother Lee, penniless, unruly, a nomadic desert dweller and a small-time thief (a powder-keg-exciting Drake Simpson). The pair are housesitting for their mother, but mostly they’re fighting over everything — lifestyle choices, their deadbeat father and, most vehemently and violently, over the sale of a screenplay.
Austin has come to his mother’s house to put the finishing touches on his film script and meet with Hollywood producer Saul (Philip Lehl expertly avoiding the unctuous cliché). But Lee has an idea for a movie too and plans on hijacking Austin’s meeting to pitch his own story.
As the pair struggle for identity and their ranking with each other, now judged by which of them scores the film contract, Shepard gives us several dualities to ponder. There’s the banal civility of suburban life as offered in their mother’s home and the wildness of the dessert just down the road. There’s the clacking of the typewriter inside and the incessant drone of crickets and coyotes outside the walls. There’s the promise of Hollywood fame and fortune and the fickleness of favor. There’s smarts versus savvy. Finally, as the title suggests, there’s the fantasy of escaping one’s problems out on the range set against the notion that the myth of the true west is a lie.
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Sitting in the theater, though, we are perhaps too busy laughing as the brothers goad, undermine and insult each other to give the larger meaning immediate thought. There is great glee in watching circumstances force each of these two into the other’s skin, especially since neither of them handles it well at all. As the action swings wildly between physical comedy and explosive violence (inflicted especially on one poor typewriter), Lehl shows her prowess by never allowing things to tip into chaos even as the narrative appears to be careening in that direction. As Austin and Lee, Farco and Simpson are in perfect synch as warring brothers, offering remarkably generous performances that provide plenty of room for show-stealing moments from them both.
Unlike the mild staleness of Buried Child’s construct, True West still leaps off the stage with fresh vitality, challenging us to consider the many sides of our own psyches while gifting us with a hell of a good time. As the curtain closes and we once again turn our attention to the present American Dream playing out in the polls, it’s a shame that our nation’s present duality couldn’t be as much fun.
Through October 1. The MATCH, 3400 Main, 713-521-4533, catastrophictheatre.com.
Through September 30. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-786-1849, 4thwalltheatreco.com.