The walls fade over an opaque glow and the interior of a family home that follows the same demise and collapse as the story of those living inside of it. Currently at A Noise Within, “Buried Child” by Sam Shepard tells a story of secrets and familial divide that, although absurd, shares the truthful relationships between family members that have aged out of innocence.
Vince (Zach Kenney) and his girlfriend Shelly (Angela Gulner) visit Vince’s family in rural Illinois to find out no one remembers him. His grandparents, Dodge (Geoff Elliott) and Halie (Deborah Strang), have fallen into the same routine with their son, Vince’s father Tilden (Michael Manuel). Halie reminisces about the past while Dodge, once a farmer, spends his days on the couch drinking away his memories with liquor he hides in the cushions. Meanwhile, in this production Tiden is autistic and lost in life. He moves back with his parents after running into troubles in New Mexico, and now faces his son without recognizing who he is.
Gulner described entering the play from Shelly’s perspective as “being invited to a dinner party and finding out everyone at the dinner party is insane.”
Shelly is the only character that watches it all happen. With the crash of a teacup, she breaks the absurdity while delving into it. She controls the family by playing with their actions, from throwing a prosthetic leg to offering Tilden her jacket to nestle and nurture as if it were a child, she plays along because all she wants to do is get out.
“As the play goes on we start to see the ways that the family has kind of collapsed over the years,” Gulner said. “All the characters tend to live in their own logic.”
When the young couple enters the play, Dodge erupts in confusion and anger for his lost bottle of whiskey. Elliott tiptoes on the lines of absurd and realism as he embodies Dodge’s confusion and alcoholic tendencies, but still leans into the situation. Vince and Shelly are still in the world of realism. It is like one world colliding into another.
While Dodge wants his alcohol back, Vince wants his family.
After much convincing from Dodge, Vince leaves his childhood home to get more alcohol for his grandfather. He knows he shouldn’t, but after being forgotten by his own family, he would do anything to be remembered. Kenney believes Shepard uses the play to analyze how family relationships ebb and flow.
“He’s often asking what does it mean to be part of the American family unit,” Kenney said.
For Kenney, his preparation consisted of digging into his own past and family to have a stronger understanding of where he came from and what these distant characters in his bloodline mean to him.
“You look at old pictures from the 1800s of your family members, your ancestors and the same bone structure the same everything, it’s all there,” he said. “And what does that mean where does that come from? I’ve done all of that. I’ve looked at old photographs and traced ancestors and thought through at great length what that journey both literal and figurative meant.”
Going back home to mend familial ties is difficult to do, especially when coming from different worlds, Gulner said.
“There’s that feeling of strangeness when you go back home and what is my identity and living between these two identities,” she said.
The play touches on how these relationships turn sour. “Buried Child” focuses on the uncovering of family secrets with Shelly driving the secrets out of the family. The fight for truth creates a chasm that lets each forbidden memory slip from each member of the family to the point where they attack each other physically and mentally. Even though these secrets aren’t as strong in Gulner’s family, the familial tensions displayed on stage remind her of the environment she is in when she goes back home.
“I relate more to this idea of family secrets, especially being from the Midwest where we sort of push everything down and pretend everything is good and okay all the time,” she said. “I really can relate to this idea of the dark part of your family that nobody talks about but everybody knows about and what it’s like when those secrets come up from under the ground.”
Even in its moments of secrecy, there is an intimacy in some of the family bonds, specifically between Tilden and Dodge. Dodge may be an aggressive alcoholic, but he sees his troubled and autistic son like anyone else. Their relationship breaks down Tilden’s walls.
Tilden discovers the backyard, going into the garden and bringing back different foods like corn and carrots. He sits next to his father on a stool by the couch and begins to shuck the corn and peel the carrots. Manuel explains how it’s the smallest moments like these that paint the strongest vignettes of the play and the characters.
“One of my favorite moments is in the beginning when Dodge is telling me the story about him watching the baseball game when he was a kid,” Manuel said.
Manuel was strategic about when he looked at others in the play. Even in rehearsals, he did not look at Kenney for the longest time. Manuel said looking at someone was an intimate act that someone like Tilden would not do because he interacts with the world around him differently and keeps his guard up. Manuel remembers how he interacts with his niece who is autistic. He looks at the world through her eyes as Tilden.
“It’s an overwhelming thing I think sometimes when you look into somebody’s eyes,” Manuel said. “It’s a moment that you’re sharing with another person and the thing that happens for me in my experience with someone with autism. It was a jumping-off point as far as being in a situation and feeling when you can feel comfortable to actually look at somebody because by looking at them it means that you exist.”
Manuel said that for Tiden, he trusts Dodge the most to look him in the eyes.
“It feels comfortable,” Manuel said. “It feels like I finally get to look at my father and it's something that real and groundable and it feels like playing catch in the backyard with him whenever he’s telling that story.”
Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott helped pull humanity out of each of the characters. The actors shared how although the play took place during the 1970s during economic turmoil, it still speaks to today’s rural population facing similar circumstances.
“We talked a lot in the rehearsal process about how there’s a lot going on in our country and especially what’s happening to our rural populations in poverty in this country, the politics and how it feels really timely for right now,” Gulner said.
Kenney said Rodriguez-Elliot pushed them to go further into the surrealism while also grounding it in truth. One way he humanized his character was by thinking back to his own parallel experiences with Vince’s.
Vince has a speech about how he drove all the way to the Iowa border, thinking of leaving. Kenney said he experienced the same thing. He drove to Los Angeles from Northwest Chicago and made his way to the Iowa border in the same conditions, on the edge of leaving and staying.
“Vince says, ‘it was raining the whole time, it never stopped once.’ Well on my drive, you don’t ever get this lucky as an actor, but on my drive it was a downpour and it never stopped the whole way, so I’m thinking of that a bit,” Kenney said. “It’s a revolutionary speech because not only am I going out for a drive, I’m leaving. I’m getting myself from this place. The great question of that moment is am I gone forever or will I return and that is what we figure out at the end of this speech.”
Vince makes his way back to his home, and after a chaotic brawl between generations of the family, makes his way to his grandfather’s place on the couch. He coughs and takes a swig of whiskey. He continues the cycle, following the same mannerisms and reality as Dodge. Amidst the walls of wilting wallpaper, broken teacups and loose corn husks, everything changed, yet stayed the same. Shelly is gone and Vince takes Dodge’s place. The production looks at the broken family unit and builds it back up through chaos. For Kenney, it is a matter of whether you return to the past and stay there, or bring it with you to the future.
“How do we carry on the line of those who have built a life for us at this point or how do we build a new one with those feeling left behind,” Kenney said.
“Buried Child” runs now through November 23rd at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25, or $20 with Student Rush. More information and tickets can be found here.