Sam Shepard did many things in a varied life, including writing a diary of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour and playing banjo on a Patti Smith album. But he had his greatest success as a Hollywood actor and a Broadway playwright. As the former, he was in big films, from The Right Stuff to Black Hawk Down, without ever becoming a bankable movie star: The nearest he got was playing the guy who gets the girl, Diane Keaton, in Baby Boom (1987), the most successful of that mini-genre of motion pictures in which a gal from the city moves to the country - in this case, a yuppie ad exec who winds up in a picture-perfect small-town Vermont. Part of the deal in these scenarios is finding a local guy who isn't as slick as the sharks left behind in Manhattan and looks a little goofy when he wears his only sports coat to spiff up for their first date. By comparison with the Wall Street and Madison Avenue types, he's laconic and a horny-handed son of toil, although not too horny-handed, nor too horny, content to let romance take its time until the leading lady figures out what every female moviegoer has grasped from the first scene: He's perfect. After Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard, there was Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr a decade or so later in Hope Floats. My own view is that these kinds of roles originated as a response to the insufferability of the "new man", so Hollywood started offering rural new men, with all the sensitivity of their metrosexual counterparts but fewer unguents and more rust on the pick-up. Sam Shepard was the prince of the species.
If rural life isn't quite as bucolic as it was in his biggest film role, one would hope it's not quite as grim as in his most famous play. Shepard spells out in the title what most playwrights would have left for a plot twist late in Act Two: Buried Child. We are on some hardscrabble land in Illinois, whose crop failure is a metaphor for everybody else's: the emasculated patriarch, a mother cavorting cheerlessly with the local minister, a younger son crippled by a chainsaw, an older son crippled by a dark shame... After a lot of whimsical absurdist off-off-off-off-Broadway stuff, this play was a turning point in Shepard's career, the one that brought him to the Great White Way and won him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. I never saw that first production, but I was rapt during Gary Sinise's splendid revival for Steppenwolf twenty years ago. I say "revival", but Shepard re-wrote enough of the piece to earn him a Tony nomination for Best (new) Play, which isn't bad for a work twenty years old. Beyond the rewrites, the ground had shifted since Buried Child was first produced: In the Seventies, he was seen by some as a heavyhanded trasher of the American Dream; by the Nineties, people were beginning to discern that things were going awry in the heartland - that there was more to country life than Diane Keaton found in upcountry Vermont.
Shepard gives away the family secret in the title of Buried Child because it's not really a secret at all: everybody knows it, but they've all agreed not to talk about it. I often think of Shepard's scenario in a political context - for example, in the repulsive effusions that followed Ted Kennedy's death, in which Mary Jo Kopechne's corpse played the role of the dead baby everyone's agreed not to mention. One sees how easily respectable people - indeed, entire nations - can be made complicit in a lie. But that's a long way from Shepard's setting. In that Gary Sinise production of Buried Child, we're confined, like that family, to a barren patch of farmland, in Illinois, in the late Seventies, in the pouring rain, in a decrepit, gloomy, claustrophobic parlor, closed off from outside light except through a crumbling screen porch and a door of broken glass. The least moth-eaten thing in the room is an old deer head; the sofa is shabby and stuffed with newspaper, the stair carpet is threadbare and seems to stretch to the attic. From the top of the impossibly long staircase, the family matriarch Halie (Lois Smith) screams down to her husband Dodge (James Gammon), who emerges from underneath a soiled, worn blanket on the sofa. They begin a blackly funny argument that, by this stage in their long marriage, has become pure ritual. Dodge, the bewhiskered old-timer, spends almost all the play either under his filthy blanket or a pile of corn husks or in some other humiliating position. His dry rasp, like the play's dark secrets, seems to have risen up from fathomless depths.
And then his grandson Vince shows up from Los Angeles, with a girlfriend in tow. "It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or somethin', " says Shelley. It isn't, of course: this is a Gothic house of horror where the inhabitants haunt themselves. Vince is a grown-up child who returns home after a long absence only to find that none of his family recognizes him. The illusory security of identity is a common theme in Shepard's work. In Fool for Love, May tells Eddie, "You're gonna erase me": their passion is so overpowering, it will wipe her out. Buried Child presents the opposite problem: an identity under threat of erasure through indifference. Even when Vince reprises his old surefire party trick - playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" on his teeth - his pa and gran'pa still don't recognize him. Dodge and Halie and their two sons, the lumbering hulk Tilden and the one-legged sadist Bradley, are intertwined far more deeply (incestuously even) than most families, yet all of them seem to exist in isolation; across the generations, in this family the capacity for human connection has been erased.
In précis, the characters sound like grotesques. In Gary Sinise's production, they managed to make their grotesqueness almost prosaic and routine—as an inevitable consequence of hard lives in a harsh climate: to counter the old line about lives of quiet desperation, these are lives of savage resignation. Buried Child is both ambiguous and visceral, and I have never forgotten it. As I said, this view of rustic life is very different from Baby Boom's: In 1996, I figured the truth lay somewhere in between. But, it has to be said, in the descent into opioid hell of both Vermont and my own New Hampshire, the last twenty years have moved far closer to the vision of Shepard's play than the romcom happy ending of his movie role. Rest in peace.
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