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‘What American Dream?’ Asks No Refund Theater’s ‘Buried Child’

We know, we know, we know: The American Dream is dead.

American writers have outright delighted in proclaiming this for decades; Gatsby’s floating in the pool, Willy Loman had a crappy funeral, Swede Levov’s daughter blew up the post office. And this week, No Refund Theater presents “Buried Child,” yet another dark domestic drama about an all-American family that — oh so shockingly — turns out to have problems.

Why, then, should you, a smart and jaded audience to whom the news of the American Dream’s demise is not only a commonplace but almost a cliché, bother with this one?

Because “Buried Child” does not kill the American Dream. Rather, as this eerily hollow production emphasizes, Sam Shepard’s best-known play asserts the notion of the American Dream as nothing more than a childish, empty fantasy born of naive idealism.

“Buried Child,” co-directed by senior Hope Weltman and recent grad Dalton Brough, opens in a bleak family farmhouse somewhere nondescript in Illinois. An irritable old man sits on the couch, watching television and drinking. His religious wife nags from upstairs.

Their adult son Tilden, a man with a worrying air of disconnection with reality, meanders through the house shucking corn that he happened upon outside (despite corn not having been planted by his father in years). This family home is not a comforting place. The three of them talk with varying degrees of surreal looseness that’s pretty creepy.

Things seem like they might get better with the arrival of Vince and his girlfriend Shelley, who are stopping by the house to visit on a cross-country trip. But “Buried Child” is not out to comfort anyone, and things soon devolve into a surrealist nightmare in which certainty basically goes out the window. The synopsis will have to stop there if the play is to remain unspoiled, but suffice it to say that “disturbing” would be an understatement.

The themes of “Buried Child” resonate through the sparse, impoverished set and, somewhat counterintuitively, through the character of Shelley, who’s repulsed and worried by the looming, undefinable threat of this supposedly “all-American” family. Shelley reacts with quite understandable confusion to the weirdness of it all: the strangers who hardly interact with her, the denial of Vince’s relationship to them, and their sheer aggressive oddness.

“Buried Child” claims that this family home “like a Rockwell painting” has no basis in any reality we’d recognize as decent or good, let alone worth emulating for the sake of patriotism.

Of all of No Refund Theater’s productions I’ve seen, “Buried Child” is certainly the most interesting and complex — the kind of play that probably demands repeat viewing or close reading in the style of an English class. The acting might strike you initially as off-kilter and strange, but that only serves to demonstrate that the No Refund cast pays close attention to the source material. “Buried Child” shows from this week from April 4-6 at 8 p.m. in 111 Forum.

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About the Author

Steve Schneible

Recovering Bethlehem, PA native. English & Psych student, PSU SHC class of 2021. Paterno Fellow. Narcissism Hour Showrunner. Kalliope Fiction Coordinator. Earnest and usually good-natured milquetoast. Baby Onward State contributor. Email: [email protected] Moderately amusing Twitter account: @steve_schneibs

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