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The actors are so close that you can virtually reach out and touch them. But it is their emotional proximity, even more than their physical presence, that makes The One-Time Players’ production of “Buried Child,” Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, so heart-seizing.
The forces most responsible for the play’s success, besides Shepard’s penetrating brilliance, are director David Hillman and lead actor Lawrason Driscoll (Dodge). To call Driscoll’s performance “masterful” is to merely hint at a characterization so complete that every slight curl of the lip, every scratch of the head, and every slight turn of the eyes seems to come, not from his mind, but rather from the total internalization of Dodge’s twisted, alcoholic being. Driscoll’s is acting beyond the “method”; it simply “is,” realized with a thoroughness so absolute that I can’t imagine what it’s like to encounter him out of character. Not that encountering him in character is anything but an unsavory prospect.
The saving grace of the play is that, as awful as Dodge (Driscoll’s character) may be, he and the situation around him are hilarious. That Shepard, Driscoll and Hillman’s pacing is such that it’s sometimes hard to know where hilarity and absurdity end and deep dark truth begins is a true mark of genius. To draw but two analogies, think of one of those classic movements from a symphony by Gustav Mahler, when one minute you’re immersed in carefree, happy music and then, almost imperceptibly, the atmosphere transitions into tragedy and dread.
Certainly the other folks onstage at the teeny Chameleon Theater put their all into their characterizations, with powerful results. But, at least on opening night, each of those actresses and actors exhibited a certain degree of self-consciousness during their entrances. It’s perhaps unfair to single out Scott Nollette (Father Dewis), who, in the play’s smallest role, too often seemed to be trying to figure out what to do with a cardboard case of self-righteous hypocrisy and ineptitude. But even he, as well as Michelle Hensel (a touching Halie), Peter Wiant (a marvelously preoccupied Tilden), David Wayne Johnson (a frightening Bradley, at times), Katie Kowalski (a far-beyond-the-Valley Shelly) and Jason Noltemeir (an ultimately scary Vince), settled into their parts as the story progressed.
What, you may be wondering, is the story about? Whatever you do, don’t head to Wikipedia, Google or the local library to find out. Suffice to say that “Buried Child” is a play about a Norman Rockwell painting gone amok, in which every single line tells a tale both ridiculous and heartbreaking. It’s a stunning achievement, marvelously brought to life by The One-Time Players. Even if you fear that the naked truth of “Buried Child” may resonate too strongly within, Driscoll’s performance is reason enough to attend. If he were back on off Broadway or TV, he would likely be up for an award.
(Jason Victor Serinus writes about music and audio for Seattle Times, Stereophile and many other publications.)