You can sense it even before the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard play starts in earnest. Even before the house lights dim in the theater, Dodge (Rob Donohoe) wanders onto the set, a bare-bones living room in a rundown farmhouse, and watches a TV that has been plopped down on the floor.
From that alone, we see a man who is resigned and hopeless. He periodically swigs from a whiskey bottle he stuffs into the cushions of the ragged couch where he sits, covered in a well-weathered blanket staring blankly at the flickering screen.
Director J. Barry Lewis has chosen to mount a version revised in 1995 by Shepard after the playwright and actor felt frustration with the original 1978 production (the play is set in 1979). This take reportedly has more humor, though it is a dark, raspy kind of comedy that leaves you chortling uncomfortably for two hours even as a knot twists in your stomach.
You get a sense of the laughs to come at the top of the play, as Dodge has a sour conversation with his wife, Halie (Angie Radosh), though we don't see her for a good 10 minutes, her voice trailing from one of the bedrooms "upstairs." On and on, she prattles about a son named Ansel, who died under suspicious circumstances in a motel room during his honeymoon. All the while, Dodge murmurs antagonisms back at her.
As entertaining as this is, you can't help but wonder when the action is going to kick in. It has. In wanders another one of their sons, Tilden (Paul Tei), carrying handfuls of corn even though the family hasn't planted crops in 30 years. This surreal turn simultaneously pumps the brakes and presses the gas. Later, symbolism rushes to the forefront as the other son, Bradley (David Nail), emasculates his father right before a blackout and intermission.
Wait. What? Is this right? Did something happen? Or did something not happen that was supposed to happen? Things get even weirder 15 minutes later, when "Buried Child" resumes for two more acts. Tilden's son, Vince (Cliff Burgess), makes a surprise visit after a six-year absence and no one seems to recognize him. His girlfriend, Shelly (Olivia Gilliatt), who's only along for the ride, tries to make sense of it all. She is our proxy, and a counterpoint to Father Dewis (Dan Leonard), an ineffectual moral leader who should set things right but does not.
And what about that title? "You never seen a bitch eat her pups," Dodge asks by way of an answer.
Yeah, it's that kind of play, brutal, creepy, funny and sad. Shepard's fractured tale, told here with Palm Beach Dramaworks' signature detailed and nuanced stagecraft, is weird and hypnotic. The acting is great and gothic.
This is a production with powerful images, drawing out themes the playwright has returned to time and again: disillusion with the American dream; the rot of hypocrisy; and the breakdown of traditional values. While there is a plot and pacing misstep with Vince's getting sidelined for way too long, "Buried Child" is also a mystery, with a wallop of a reveal (or two) in the final act that will leave you reeling. It's as if someone sprayed a Norman Rockwell painting with F-bomb graffiti.
"Buried Child" will run through April 26 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and select Sundays at 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $62. To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.