Estranged grandson Vince returns to his idealised family home in rural Illinois in the hopes of re-establishing a connection with the life he left behind six years previously. But when he arrives unannounced on the porch of a rotting, leak-ridden farmhouse, the men of his family claim not to remember him. His father is a frightened shell of the man he recalls and his grandfather is in the process of insidiously but cheerfully drinking himself to death. As Vince’s own memories are cast into doubt, it becomes clear that – unbeknownst to him – his family has dark secrets and a collective commitment to keeping them buried. As the thin veneer of domestic stability peels away to reveal something much more threatening, the sins of the father are invisibly revisited upon the son.
To see Ed Harris give a near-faultless performance is reason enough to see Buried Child.
This is a small-scale domestic drama; a terrible truth bubbles to the murky surface over three acts separated by two intermissions. In New York, Buried Child ran without a break. The intensity of this experience may have been a little overwhelming for Broadway audiences, but the flip-side to this is that the introduction of intervals creates an episodic feel. The first third is a halting and slow-moving introduction to the dark, silent spaces which Dodge (Ed Harris) and Halie (Amy Madigan) occupy. The second act explodes with energy as Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and his sharp, empathetic girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Hope) arrive at the house and begin the dangerous process of thawing the frozen landscape of the family’s emotional life. The final act is one of revelation and ultimate reckoning. Each section feels like an excellent play in its own right, but they feel stitched together and strangely disconnected. Perhaps this is due to the script’s mounting tension being continuously undermined by the curtain coming down on the action.
Despite being one of America’s most decorated actors, this is a rare appearance from Ed Harris on the English stage and he proves himself to be every bit deserving of his reputation as one of the greats. As the lights come up, Harris is hunched over a bottle, ragged and bleary. Each hacking cough that shudders from his wasted body is physically discomfiting to the audience. He looks like a man at the end of his life but even in this sorry state he has an uncanny hold over the audience. When joking, chiding or arguing he remains both apathetic and pathetic but never anything but magnetic. Equally captivating is the UK’s Charlotte Hope, who excels as Vince’s glamourous but shrewd girlfriend Shelly. She gives an excellent performance, simultaneously vulnerable and assertive, fragile and firm. This is a wonderful part for a young actor and she rises to the occasion.
The play occasionally veers toward the melodramatic, which is a shame as it prevents total immersion in the storyline. This heightened emotion creates some of the comedy which is so crucial to Buried Child – Shelly stealing Brandon’s false leg, for example – but when it falls flat it is uncomfortable viewing. Jeremy Irvine has not totally settled into the role of Vince and as a result, his emotional breakdown lacks emotional authenticity and feels somewhat hammy. When he dons his grandfather’s cap on at the dramatic culmination of the performance, it is more funny than poignant. The tragedy of the play should lie in his implied repetition of an appalling past, but one leaves the theatre thinking mainly of Shelly’s loss of innocence. In a sense, Charlotte Hope reclaims this hypermasculine play as her own.
To see Ed Harris give a near-faultless performance is reason enough to see Buried Child. It is a gripping, occasionally breathtaking work of American genius which perhaps does not translate as well to the British stage.