In the pantheon of predictable similes, there are probably none more banal than this: Families are like gardens. You see, each family - even the weirdly distorted one in Buried Child, which is now playing at Convergence-Continuum - is a collective entity made up of distinct individuals. So it's just like a vegetable plot, except for the fact that your zucchini doesn't usually try to physically assault or emotionally abuse your acorn squash. In this fiercely challenging work by Sam Shepard (it won the '79 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), a farm family in Illinois is devouring itself with gusto. As directed by Clyde Simon, this version deploys much of the playwright's edgy humor, even though the desperation of a clan waging an internal, alienating war is oddly muted.
From the outside, as we are told by a visitor, the family homestead looks like something from a Norman Rockwell painting. But inside, it's all Hieronymus Bosch with the family secret, alluded to in the title, underlying everyone's depressing existence.
Crotchety old man Dodge lies on a ratty couch, coughing up a lung, swigging rye whiskey and snarling at his wife Halie. The first part of act one is occupied by their verbal tennis match, with Halie unseen in an upstairs room as Dodge continually mocks his wife's reveries about her more delightful past.
This disconnect is amplified when Halie finally descends, stewing about their son Ansel, who "married into the Catholics" and wound up dead. She is on her way to a lunch with the pastor, to make plans for a statue honoring Ansel.
Meanwhile, her living sons are dangling by a thread. Hulking grown son Tilden is living with them, having been thrown out of New Mexico for unknown reasons. He brings in an armload of corncobs (and later carrots) from the back acreage, to the surprise of Dodge, since the area hasn't been planted for decades. Then, one-legged son Bradley (Geoffrey Hoffman) keeps showing up at odd times to attack his dad's head with a hair clipper when Dodge is asleep, leaving bloody furrows in Dodge's scalp.
As with any family, there are more questions here than answers. And it all gets even weirder when Tilden's son Vince shows up with gal pal Shelly, and no one recognizes him. After Vince disappears to the store, Shelly takes it upon herself to lift the rock on this family's unspoken horror.
In the central role of Dodge, Michael Regnier plays many snarky notes, wisely throwing away several of his put-downs. But, at times, it seems he is observing his character more than occupying it, and this lack of total commitment to Dodge's rancid belligerence softens some of Shepard's flintier edges. Lucy Bredeson-Smith is sharp and unforgiving as Halie, and Cliff Bailey's eerie Tilden, silently snapping the stalks off the cobs, seems like the long lost little brother of Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men. Less successful is Lauren B. Smith as Shelly, never finding the through-line to her character's sharp U-turns from fear and flight to fascination and investigation. As Vince, Tom Kondilas is effective early on, but we don't feel his emotion as he is pulled back into this nightmarish situation.
As bleak and wind-whipped as an Illinois field in mid-winter, Buried Child explores the toxic effects of secrecy and separate-ness. But since this family never coalesces onstage or in our mind, the ultimate tragedy doesn't feel as powerful as it should.