Hanging on the walls of a decaying farmhouse in Illinois are Norman Rockwell illustrations, paintings of Jesus, the American flag, and pictures of idyllic kitchens. This is the American Dream and it’s rotting underneath.
SUDS’ adaptation brings to life the fragmentation of Shepard’s nuclear family. The father, Dodge (Liam Hurley), wastes away on a trashed couch, drunkenly croaking answers to his wife Halie (Akala Newman). Dressed in a soiled wife-beater, his eyes are half-shut and lolling as he gulps down whisky between his coughing fits. Hurley’s portrayal brings a boyish quality to the role, being a young man himself. We see a contrast between the youth of the characters’ faces and their decomposing lives.
The audience becomes invested in the characters’ backstories and emotions through the vicissitudes of the first half. Dodge’s alcoholism stays much the same, punctuated by explosive fits and scary silences. We are introduced to his son Tilden (Jack Walton), who talks like Forrest Gump and moves with the clumsy pathos of Steinbeck’s Lennie Small.
Chris Wale’s set design paints us a picture of the American Dream—idealistic pictures on the walls and corn growing outside, and don’t forget the calming sound of rain. Yet the white lights are unnerving and the rest of the set is uncomfortably bare. And we learn that corn hasn’t grown on this farm for years. The contrast is surreal and the reality is tarnished.
As we begin to hear of Tilden’s “trouble in New Mexico,” we become more and more aware of the disturbing past that lurks in the shadows of the characters. Tilden’s detached and shaky mien makes us feel that we, too, should be wary. Nelson Scott as Bradley, the second son, does well in his menacing presence: dressed in a stereotypical ‘white trash’ outfit, his violent mood changes leave the audience feeling at once horrified and impressed.
Director Gabriel Burke orchestrates every detail of the characters and their relationships. The emotions are raw and compelling, and the perfectly timed silences are amongst the best dramatic moments in the play. Indeed, the audience is in breathless silence during Dodge’s crescendos of anger, or when Bradley alternates between maniacal laughs and brutal stares.
Newman as Halie is captivating from the start, even when we hear only her voice. She moves effortlessly between the shrieks of a nagging wife and the dotty excitement of a woman having an affair (with a priest, actually). Her yellow 1950s housewife ensemble captures her shameless flirtatiousness and her refusal to discuss the less-than-perfect past.
The eerie notes of a plucked guitar mark the start of the second act. The family dissolves into chaos once more when grandson Vince (Flynn Barnard) and his girlfriend Shelly (Nina Bayndrian) arrive. The lights are tinted blue and we’re thrust into vertigo. Vince and Shelly experience the same process of disorientation that we’ve just been through. Barnard is all hysterical confusion as he goes unrecognised, and Bayndrian successfully conveys the bewilderment of one who suspects she has entered a madhouse. Reserved yet lustful Father Dewis (Tim Ogborne) soon joins, brilliant in his portrayal of the story’s dysfunction and irony.
Shelly could have more presence in the denouement, where she represents the audience’s own disorientation and shock as outsider to this dysfunctional family. Nevertheless, the cast is superb as they navigate through moments of extreme tension and comedic relief, horror and empathy, leaving the audience to find their way back to terra firma.
You can catch SUDS’ Buried Child at The Cellar Theatre until May 12.