Theater Review: Buried Child

It’s one of the oldest dramatic tricks in the book: family or community has deep dark secret; stranger or prodigal son comes to town, kicks up dirt; secret comes out, and devastation (or newfound freedom) ensues. Sam Shepard rode this old horse to his first mainstream commercial success with his 1978 play, Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is now recognized as a landmark of American theater.

But if you’d seen only the current production by the White Horse Theater Company, you wouldn’t peg the play as a classic, or even as a lesser work by a great writer. Staging Buried Child requires balancing modernistic touches of absurdity and magic realism with ancient depths of emotion, and artfully mingling humor and gloom. In spite of the presence of some good elements, the whole of this production fails to powerfully connect, and the fault lies mainly with the staging.

The individually excellent cast, led by Bill Rowley as Dodge, the family patriarch, isn’t directed so as to create the emotionally stifled atmosphere the play would seem to call for. There really isn’t much of an atmosphere at all, in fact (notwithstanding the homey set and evocative lighting). The famous opening scene, where Dodge’s wife Halie (Karen Gibson) harangues him at length from offstage, starts off funny and touching but then seems to drag on forever; the same painfully slow pacing continues throughout the play, contributing to the unwanted sense that each character inhabits a separate world. Shepard isn’t Beckett; this story isn’t about existential angst or alienation – except from the truth.

Rod Sweitzer as Tilden & Ginger Kroll as Shelly
Photo by Joe Bly

The family is certainly not what you’d call a “functional” one, but it is supposed to have made at least some sort of uneasy place for itself in the wake of past tragedy; yet, with the partial exception of Dodge, its members don’t convey here the sense of dull sorrow or resignation that would make us care about them.

The monkeywrench in Shepard’s story is the arrival, after six years’ absence, of grandson Vince (Chris Stetson) with his girlfriend Shelly (Ginger Kroll, whose embodiment of terror, confusion and smarts is quite wonderful). When the family mysteriously fails to recognize Vince, he storms off, leaving Shelly to cope with crotchety Dodge and his half-lunatic eldest son Tilden, who keeps bringing in mysterious crops from a field Dodge hasn’t planted in decades. Second son Bradley (David Look) seems to move in another universe entirely – we’re not even sure why his character exists, and Look’s one-note performance doesn’t help. (Whether his furiously shouting every line was an actor’s or director’s choice, it was a bad one.)

Returning in the third act, the game and talented Stetson delivers Vince’s monologue with conviction, but in a vacuum – we don’t care about him, either, so the audience’s ears are nearly as deaf to his passion as are those of his wrecked family.

Director Cyndy Marion has staged well-received Shepard productions in the past and is evidently something of a specialist in the playwright. But, in spite of the good performances, this Buried Child has too little of Shepard’s sense of creepy mystery and witty snap.

Presented by the White Horse Theater Company at the American Theater of Actors in New York City through Feb. 12, 2006.

CD and Concert Review: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac

Here are the top ten things I learned from attending Rosanne Cash’s CD release party in NYC last night and then listening to the new CD:

10. The major labels may be hurting for cash, but not for Rosanne Cash. For her, only real, velvety-crimson roses will do.

9. For sheer songwriting excellence, I’m still partial to 1996’s 10 Song Demo, but as an integral work, the new CD is Cash’s best to date. Dense with emotion, it’s about mortality and loss, but not morbid, and mercifully free of facile invocations of faith. (God may be “in the roses/the petals and the thorns” but “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell.”)

8. Despite the heavy doses of contemplation and brooding in the new songs, Cash still rocks. Witness the taut title track, the smooth, chocolately rockabilly of “Radio Operator,” and the angst-ridden “Dreams Are Not My Home.”

7. For the musicians out there: Cash’s flair for minor keys is as forceful as ever; so is her trick of ending a phrase with the dramatic two-chord instead of the more usual five-chord.

6. Cash’s honeyed, heartbreaking alto can loosen up even a room full of jaded music-industry insiders. On stage she’s magnetic and glowing.

5. One can’t help but admire the grace and humility with which she accepts and uses both the talent she inherited and the long shadow that comes with it.

4. Even in the hyper-selfconscious 21st century, a “concept album” can be a good idea. Black Cadillac is perhaps more accurately described as a theme album. The songs stand alone but all are auto- or superautobiographical, dealing with present feeling and with history of past generations both known and only known of. The beautiful “House On The Lake” is a crystal-clear paean to simpler times, perhaps of childhood; “Radio Operator” evokes Johnny Cash’s life during wartime; and “Good Intent” concerns the arrival in America of the singer’s ancestors centuries ago.

3. Trying to separate the work from the life is, in this case, futile and unnecessary. These songs speak to the deep and conflicting feelings about family and loss that are part of the universal human condition. Knowing they’re inspired by people whose lives belonged more to the world than to their own families makes them, if anything, more touching and powerful.

2. I like gin.

1. And the number one thing I learned from Rosanne Cash’s CD release party:

Even a musical royal gets nervous when her voice coach is in the audience.

Indie Round-Up for Jan 12 2006: Fern Jones, Bradley Leighton

Welcome to the first Indie Round-Up of 2006!

Fern Jones, The Glory Road

A crucial early scene in the recent Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line recounts Cash’s initial audition for legendary producer Sam Phillips, where Phillips interrupts Cash’s rendition of the popular gospel tune “I Was There When It Happened” to urge him to sing instead something from his heart. The rest was history; but it’s worth at least a pause to consider Fern Jones, the now almost completely forgotten writer of “I Was There.”

Steeped as a child in the popular white secular music of the 30s along with the “race music” that grew into rock and roll, Jones followed her husband Ray (she married at sixteen) into the religious life when he became a travelling preacher. Injecting her country-and-western and proto-rock-and-roll numbers with Pentecostal fervor, she brought a Cline-like swagger and a ringing, seductive vocal style to the religious songs she sang on the road, which included classic hymns as well as her own masterful compositions.

It seems no one else was doing quite exactly this, which made Jones almost a movement of her own. Indeed it was Jimmie Davis’s version of “I Was There When It Happened” that Johnny Cash knew. When Jones eventually did release an album on a real label (Dot Records, home to Gale Storm and Pat Boone) in 1959, it failed, and her attempt to promote it with a concert tour showed that something about what she was doing didn’t translate well from the revival tent to the auditorium. The songs were probably just a little too devotional. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and other musical greats also had Pentecostal inspiration, but their rebellion against straight-laced religion was a lifestyle, not “merely” an artistic statement. In any case, Jones’s recording languished and was thought lost, but then, like a soul born again, it was found, and after a time Jones re-acquired the rights. Now the album receives a very welcome CD re-release.

It doesn’t do Jones proper justice to think of her as the “gospel Patsy Cline” (though there are vocal similarities). Nor is it correct to say that Jones was deprived by a capricious fate of a great career to which she was somehow entitled. Though Jones the singer can’t quite match Patsy Cline or Elvis Presley for gutwrenching pathos, her instrument was formidable, her songs (both those she wrote and those she interpreted) were wonderful, and her career ministering to the flocks under the tents seems to have been an unqualified success. We all make choices, and we all do what we can when we can; sometimes our timing is right, and sometimes it isn’t. That Jones’s one album – to which some additional singles have been added for this release – has survived is something of a miracle. With her voice and songs, and some of Nashville’s great musicians (like Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland) backing her up, it’s a fine record independent of its history. She died in 1996, but wherever Sister Fern is now, she’s got absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Bradley Leighton, Back to the Funk

Smooth jazz-funk! Real instruments! Seductive, painless grooves! Bradley’s Leighton’s sonorous alto flute brings back the seventies, when the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and Boz Skaggs merged jazz and funk into an easygoing blend that softened many a hard heart (and helped remove many a reluctant bra). You’ll have to shake your own earth, but if you’re in the mood for smoothitude, this collaboration between Leighton and writer-arranger Allan Phillips could be just the thing.

The disc’s one weakness lies in the fact that the 21st-century ear is accustomed to more modern – or at least more interesting – beats. It’s possible to lose oneself in Leighton and Phillips’s tasty horn arrangements, the former’s gorgeous flute tone and genteel bop touches, and the simple rhythms, but it’s also possible to wish for grooves that could tickle today’s jumpy sensibilities. However, if any of this description tickles your own fancy, it’s worth seeing for yourself.