Dysfunction Junction

Firehouse Theatre readies “Buried Child,” a Pulitzer-winning play about disillusionment with the American Dream.

Inflation. Stagnant wages. Disillusionment with the government. A country still licking its wounds after an unnecessary, years-long war. An overall feeling that the American Dream is unattainable.

These are some of the societal conditions in the 1970s that inspired Sam Shepard to write his Pulitzer-winning play “Buried Child.” It isn’t lost on Chelsea Burke, director of the Firehouse Theatre production that opens this weekend, that these issues have a ring of familiarity in the present day.

“It came out in this time of disillusionment of what it meant to be American, the nuclear family, the breakdown of the American dream,” explains Burke of “Buried Child.”

Taking place in an old Illinois farmhouse on a failed plot of land, the play concerns three generations of a dysfunctional family. Dodge, a patriarch in failing health, never leaves his sofa and takes surreptitious swigs from a whiskey bottle hidden under a blanket. Halie, his wife, would rather spend her time with a minister than her dying husband. One of their sons is dead; the other two are disabled, one mentally and one physically.

“Due to some circumstances and some secrets, this family has fallen into despair, dismay, and has fallen apart at the seams,” says Burke, adding that the play is more complex than its structure may suggest. “The bones of this play are like a realistic family drama, but there are also lots of moments of surrealism and symbolism, and blending those two sensibilities together has been a challenge.”

Local actor David Bridgewater plays Dodge, the depressed alcoholic patriarch.

“He’s basically a guy who was a working class farmer and was doing well, then this event happens and his life starts crumbling around him,” explains Bridgewater of his character. “At this point in the play, he’s a broken man. He’s like this lion with one tooth left in his head.”

Ashley Thompson as Shelly and Andy Braden as Tilden. Photo: Bill Sigafoos

Bridgewater says that “Buried Child” is likely Shepard’s most popular and produced play for a reason.

“It’s like this pot that’s simmering at the beginning, but by the end the top just blows off,” he says. “It’s very powerful and very indicative of what can happen when you leave things buried.”

When he originally read the script, Bridgewater didn’t realize how demanding it would be to play a sedentary character.

“It’s just physically a workout, playing someone who’s dying,” he says. “It’s much more of a beast of a role than I realized at first reading, but I like that. I like the challenge of not knowing whether I’m going to pull something off or not.”

The show’s plot is put into motion when Vince, Dodge and Halie’s estranged grandson, arrives unannounced.

“The prodigal grandson returns after years away from the homestead from New York City with his girlfriend Shelly,” explains actor Adam Turck, who plays Vince. “He’s hoping to find the Norman Rockwell dream that he remembers from his early childhood, but finds something much different, much more rotten and much more violent.”

Turck says the show’s themes should resonate with modern audiences.

“Disillusionment with the American Dream, toxic masculinity and cyclical familial trauma, I might argue, are more relevant today and more under a microscope than they ever have been before,” he says.

Bridgewater says audiences should be prepared for some dramatic fireworks.

“When you talk about theater, if you mention the word ‘heavy’ or ‘dark,’ that scares some people away. And those same people will go home and turn on ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘The Sopranos,’” says Bridgewater with a laugh. “Our job as artists is to show all sides of life. Some parts are happy and funny, some parts are very complex and heavy.

“Somebody said to me long ago that theater can be a paintbrush, or it can be a sledgehammer, and we’re working with a sledgehammer. It’s a punch in the chest for the audience.”

 “Buried Child” plays through July 21 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., 23220. For more information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call (804) 355-2001.

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