AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Sam Shepard
Directed by Loretta Greco
Presented by & at Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco / (415) 441-8822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

San Francisco's Magic Theatre is opening its 47th season with what it calls a legacy revival of Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child."

The Magic presented the play's world premiere in 1978 while Shepard was playwright in residence from 1975 to 1983. The current production uses Shepard's 1995 revision.

This compelling drama about a ultra-dysfunctional family takes place in a rundown farmhouse in Illinois. Dodge (Rod Gnapp), the family's patriarch, is in his 70s and spends most of his time on a ratty sofa in front of a TV while he coughs and takes frequent swigs from a bottle he hides behind the cushions.

His younger wife, Halie (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), is first heard nagging at him from upstairs. Before long, she leaves to have lunch with her minister-lover, Father Dewis (Lawrence Radecker).

Their elder son, Tilden (James Wagner), has recently returned after getting into unspecified trouble in New Mexico, where he has lived for many years. Tilden is a large, zombie-like man who makes his first appearance bearing an armload of freshly picked corn. He says it came from their backyard, but Dodge says nothing has grown there in years.

Another son, Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones), who lost a lower leg to a chain saw, lives nearby. He seems to be evil personified. A third son, Ansel, died in a motel room.

Tilden's son, Vince (Patrick Alparone), unexpectedly stops by to visit his grandparents and to see where he grew up. He's in his 20s and has been gone about six years, but no one admits to recognizing him at first.

With him is his girlfriend, Shelly (Elaina Garrity), who's initially upset by the situation and eager to leave, but Vince insists on staying. It's Shelly who extracts the family's long-held secret, which gives the play its name.

As the play ends, Shelly and the other outsider, Father Dewis, wisely depart, leaving Vince to rejoin the family in an eerie way.

Artistic director Loretta Greco's direction is outstanding as the actors fully inhabit their characters. There's much underlying tension and menace from the men of the family, especially Gnapp as Dodge. Even though he's sickly and feeble, he can be scary. The same is true of his two sons and even Vince.

The creative team complements the drama with the set by Andrew Boyce, lighting by Eric Southern and costumes by Alex Jaeger. Jake Rodriguez's sound is notable for the rain that pelts the house throughout the first act.

The play is often cryptic. Even though the family's major secret is revealed, other questions remain, leaving them open to speculation. That's part of the fascination of this fine play.

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