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Firehouse Theatre Project makes an impact with the fractured family drama, "Buried Child." 

A Burial to See

As you might guess from the title alone, Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Buried Child," is sometimes disturbing and sad. But this explication of a fractured family's dynamics is also funny, frightening, confusing, enlightening and absurd. Oh, and I almost forgot, messy: Dishes break, bottles are thrown, window screens are slashed. The engrossing production currently running at the Firehouse Theatre Project strives to hit you on an emotional level, and there's nothing like a little live mayhem to reinforce a play's psychological impact.

Among his many smart decisions, director Bill Patton made his best in casting Stephanie Kelley as our guide through this odyssey. She plays Shelly, a smart-alecky Los Angelino, who accompanies her boyfriend Vince (Justin Dray) on a visit to his family farm in Illinois. Vince finds his grandfather, Dodge (Christopher Dunn), decrepit and confined to his couch. Vince's father, Tilden (Daniel Moore), has been reduced to a babbling half-idiot, and his grandmother, Halie (Sara Heifetz), is nowhere to be found. And most aggravating of all, no one in the family seems to know who Vince is. The circuitous route to the truth has an inevitable feel to it, but it's the getting there that makes things interesting.

Kelley tackles the biggest range of emotions here and does so with assurance. She moves from a petulant brat to a mothering caretaker to a defiant detective, stopping many places in between. The biggest indication of her talent is how much better the other actors are in their scenes with her. As the patriarchal curmudgeon Dodge, Dunn is amusing and appropriately pathetic in his early scenes. But when Kelley's Shelly engages him in feisty tˆte-…-tˆtes later on, we see a more sinister side to his character. Moore is mesmerizing as the obviously damaged Tilden, and in his scenes with Kelley, he reveals surprising layers of shame and anger.

Peter Schmidt is also excellent as Tilden's one-legged brother, Bradley, but the rest of the cast is uneven. Dray overplays Vince's drunken outburst in the play's third act, moving it into the realm of parody. And the too-young Heifetz is miscast as Halie. Her character is supposed to be domineering, but Heifetz cannot get her past annoying without the weight of some additional years behind her. Thanks to scenic designer Barry Gawinsky and construction manager Alton Ayers, this show has a simply designed but ambitiously rendered set that overcomes the many challenges posed by the Firehouse Theatre's space. The set acts as a sort of blank tablet for the action of the play to be scribbled across.

Shepard is famous for plays that deal with the American frontier and its demise, like in the current Broadway hit, "True West." But in this play, the playwright displays an impressive grasp of the psychological landscape, using a "buried child" as a metaphor for any repressed secret and the power it has to tear a family apart. Shepard's vision is effectively realized under Patton's skilled direction, giving this production humor, intensity and impressive
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