If you listen closely, you’ll hear warnings for today and every day in A Noise Within’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” a tragicomedy about a house full of emotional horrors in rural Illinois.
As is the case with similar homes, this one is in ill-repair. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set makes us feel the house once was new and splendid, but now the wallpaper is peeling and the paint on the porch posts have weathered away to the wooden surface. The man of the house, Dodge (Geoff Elliott), wears a baseball cap to protect his head from his son. He’s grown old and infirm and should be popping pills, but instead self-medicates with whiskey that he hides under one of the sofa cushions. He sits and sleeps on a couch that is just a wooden frame with cushions. It’s the kind of furniture you’d expect to find on a porch rather than a front room. His comfort is cigarettes and his entertainment is the television.
His wife, Halie (Deborah Strang) calls down from long flight of stairs. One thinks he probably hasn’t ventured upstairs for years. She’s concerned about their eldest, Tilden (Michael Manuel). Tilden is a large hulk of a man and not one concerned with tidiness. Entering from the kitchen, he proceeds to shuck corn, throwing the husks and silk on the wooden floor.
Dodge and Halie have three sons. Tilden, the eldest, was once a football star, but has not been able to match the glory days of his youth. Now, he’s come home, running away from legal trouble in New Mexico. His parents worry that he’ll cause trouble at home with the neighbors. Bradley (Frederick Stuart), their middle child, lost a leg in a chainsaw accident and comes home to give his dad haircuts while Dodge is sleeping. He’s an angry man and, like Tilden, a disappointment to his mother. The golden child, Ansel, died in a motel, something which Halie blames on the Catholic family he married into.
Halie is dressed in black as if in mourning; she’s going out to visit Father Dewis (Apollo Dukakis), a Protestant minister. After scolding Dodge, Halie tells him to watch over Tilden while she’s gone.
On this rainy day, two strangers find their way to the porch and seek refuge from the rain. Vince (Zach Kenney) claims to be Tilden’s son, but he hasn’t seen Tilden in six years. He’s taking his girlfriend, Shelly (Angela Gunner), to New Mexico to meet Tilden.
Shelly thought the visit would be like a Thanksgiving dinner — plenty of food and superficial conversation with true feelings deeply buried under common courtesy and polished politeness. What she gets is a missing wife and child. The wife Halie will return with Father Dewis in tow and dark secrets will be uncovered.
Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has created a cozy little nest of passive-aggressive unpleasantness even as the absurdity of some passages will elicit laughs. Elliott’s Dodge whines, grieving the loss of his manhood. Manuel’s Tilden might not have a firm grip on reality. Stuart’s Bradley seems to enjoy humiliating his father and he’s not above drawing a little blood, but this is more a brutish coward’s revenge than psychotic killer in the making. Strang’’s Halie and Gulner’s Shelly might seem like the sanest of this bunch.
Listen to the words. The truth is hidden under casual and practiced lies. In a time of fake news and Pinocchio nose counts, listening well is an important lesson that “Buried Child” provides in its tale of a lost American dream.
“Buried Child” continues until Nov. 23 at A Noise Within, 3342 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call (626) 356-3121 or visit anoisewithin.org.