When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays, through Oct. 1
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main
Information: suggested price $35, matchouston.org
The Catastrophic Theatre has conjured up a quietly devastating portrait of an American family.
The staging, music and performances that unfold in its rendition of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," at MATCH through Oct. 1, are packed with so much detail you can watch it again and again and find new truths each time.
Carolyn Houston Boone, Rutherford Cravens and Greg Dean – as a mother, father and a son – deliver wrenching portrayals of broken souls, and they anchor a production that has the pull of a whisper and the force of a cannon.
Shepard's 1978 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is carefully crafted and effortlessly poetic, but it's far from easy to handle. The dialogue doesn't contain superficial emotions that serve as conversational adverbs in so many kitchen-sink dramas. Instead, lines are laid bare on the page, and the actors can't bring out their meanings simply through emotive suggestion.
There are no secrets glimmering in their eyes. For this cast, directed magnificently by Jeff Miller, even that kind of "read my face not my words" subtext is too superficial. There is instead a feeling of a ghost, and a tone of shifting unease, that hangs over every scene. The performances are as haunting and lyrical as an elegy. They are never obvious.
The play begins with Cravens sitting alone. He's an old man named Dodge struggling to breathe on his living room couch in an old farmhouse where the surrounding land, once filled with corn and children, is now dry as dust. Family members filter in and out of the home.
Dodge's wife, Halie (a magnetic Boone), leaves to see a pastor, while his son, the shaky, distraught Tilden (Dean), returns from a lonely stay in New Mexico because he has nowhere else to go. A hotheaded grandson barges in with a girl on his arm, then storms out when no one seems to recognize him. Left alone, the girl, Shelly (Candice D'Meza), bears witness to a desperate, sadistic and sometimes violent people.
What exactly happens in this story? What does it build up to? One answer lies in the title of "Buried Child," which suggests a loss of innocence and, perhaps, a terrible crime.
You might call the play a metaphysical whodunit. But the story is hardly traditional in how it builds tension or plots out conflicts. Its characters dance around the stage and, when they finally can't stand it anymore, let their demons spill out. The actors muster a rare combination of physicality and subtlety to drive those revelations home.
Look, for example, at the way Dean uses his hands. He shucks corn with the rhythm of a man who knows the touch of the earth, snapping the ends with a crackle, then pulling away the ears one by one. But when his hands have nothing to hold, no tool or person to embrace, they quiver like leaves on a branch in winter. He's a man of great strength but also great fragility.
Tilden understands the most but is heard the least, and in this world of buried pasts, his eccentricities often feel strangely comforting. It's an utterly hypnotic performance by Dean.
Two elements set this production apart from others. The first is the astounding original score by Geoffrey Muller. It's played by country and bluegrass instruments, but with all the wrong notes, and trembling along with the urgent pulse of a train headed down a cliff. The music holds together the vision of "Buried Child" the same way Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's score did for the 2007 film "There Will Be Blood." It's essential.
The second is the casting of D'Meza as Shelly.
Unlike everyone else in the farmhouse, she's young, progressive and has no dog in any fight. Here, Shelly's also black, and Dodge's casual remarks about her incompatibility with Vince and about the "stupid people" she surely associates with – along with Halie's refusal to acknowledge her presence save a few remarks about buffoons playing basketball – take on an even more sinister tone. Then, in the disturbing scene that ends the first act, the electric D'Meza, along with Kyle Sturdivant as a rapist named Bradley, make us all shiver.
The Catastrophic Theatre lets D'Meza highlight two relevant themes, racism and sexual violence, that were glossed over when Shepard wrote the play in 1978. Shelly isn't given much to say about either issue, but D'Meza works around the script – through a fierce attitude and a heightened awareness of danger – and offers a more current perspective. She becomes 2016 plopped into 1978, and when she is abused and ignored, she will not tolerate such treatment. She will declare her humanity in a house devoid of it. She will not be silenced by a family that prefers the deathly quiet.
Speaking of silence, this is theater that is deliberate and artful in its use of pauses. Like jazz musicians, the actors wait between lines and scenes of action to let the words spend some time with the audience. In moments when "nothing" happens, details burst out – about mothers, fathers and the way the past does or doesn't define us.
Revelations never erupt to resolve the tension. Instead, they unfurl slowly, layer by layer, building toward a finale so graceful you might call it Shakespeare.