Photo by Nico Sabenorio
Photo by Nico Sabenorio
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Buried Child

Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
Whitefire Theatre
Through Oct. 11


In 1979 Sam Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Buried Child. A dark denouncement of the American Dream, Shepard combined realism and surrealism to look at the dysfunction inherent in the modern family, and how secrets cannot be kept buried forever. Now, 35- years later, Bryan Rasmussen has directed a brutal and loving incarnation.

Sam Shepard was no stranger to family dysfunction. And surely his tumultuous relationship with his alcoholic father has made its way into Buried Child.

Dodge (Leon Russom) is a dying man, sitting on a throne in the form of an aging couch in a farmhouse that is falling apart. The play’s focus opens on his tired face, watching TV and coughing as we hear his wife Halie (Jacque Lynn Colton) in the room upstairs. The two are as distant as they could be, and even as they speak to each other, they often communicate in insults, nagging, or else they don’t hear each other at all. This is the framework for a family that while forever tied together, has ceased in any way to be cohesive.

Their eldest son Tilden (David Fraioli) seems mentally disturbed as he enters holding arm loads of corn and insists on shucking it in the middle of the room. Their other son Bradley (Cris D’Annunzio) has lost one of his legs, and attempts to compensate for this by frightening and torturing those around him. And another dead son, Ansel, is continually referenced, and it seems that everyone living here is in some way crippled, whether emotionally or physically.

It is with the arrival of Vince (Zachary Mooren) – long lost grandson on a quest to find out more about his past – with his plucky girlfriend Shelly (Tonya Cornelisse) that some life is breathed into the house. And as mysteries are explored, some things come to the surface that others would rather not acknowledge. Even Father Dewis (Grant Smith), the man representing faith and virtue on the exterior, can in no way help any of the lost and tortured souls here.

In the end, it is painfully clear that we can never escape who we are – no matter how far we run or what lengths we go to deny it.

The actors here all give full-throttle performances, baring their souls on the stage. Leon Russom is divine and magnetic as the aging and bitter patriarch Dodge. Though his action is minimal, he keeps the audience invested throughout the show.

Fraioli’s Tilden is as sympathetic as he is unwell, and we cannot help but want to care for him or see what he will do next. D’Annunzio gives a blunt yet layered performance as Bradley. Mooren as Vince descends rapidly from a Danny Zuko-esque heartthrob to the likes of Stanley Kowalski at his worst. And Tonya Cornelisse is the glue that holds everything together as the firey and dynamic Shelly.

Lighting (Derrick McDaniel), sound (DJ Lesh), costumes (Laura Tiefer) and set design (Christopher Tulysewski) all add greatly to the tone of the piece.

Pacing is at times a problem. The first act of the show is slow to start – pacing is painfully torpid as we watch Halie apply powder to the same portions of her face for 20 minutes while we wait in the long silence between lines. Two seemingly unnecessary intermissions add up and the three hours it takes to get to the point seem to dilute the content. While the play is overall redeemed by the writing itself and the artful efforts of those on stage, some things go unexplored or are revealed too quickly.

However, fans of Sam Shepard might think it worth it, as the final act is truly on fire, and the ending imagery is sure to stick with you.


Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Oct. 11. (818)-990-2324,