For our nation, it is a time of hope, as an impressive new leader promises us a fresh start. But we can’t truly begin anew until we have unearthed the dark secrets we have been hiding and recognized the self-deceptions that have been our undoing.
We looked the other way while our government tortured people in our name, buying the nonsensical notion that we can bully our way to safety. We ignored the warning signs our financial system was built on a foundation of sand, happily believing we can perpetually live beyond our means. We dismissed the cries of climate scientists and kept burning fossil fuels, assuming the planet can adapt to our punishment.
The time has arrived to bring these failed assumptions out into the light and expose them as fantasies we can no longer afford to believe. Keeping unpleasant truths hidden is a way to ensure we will keep repeating our mistakes.
Saturday night, our area’s two preeminent professional theater companies are opening productions of modern American classics that address precisely that theme. The Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara will present Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, while Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company will stage Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Neither play was picked with the Obama inauguration in mind, but both are dazzling reflections of our current state of mind. Enlivened by humor and powered by a deep ritualistic structure, each promises to resonate strongly at this particular moment in our nation’s history.
“Buried Child was written within a few years after Watergate,” noted Jonathan Fox, director of the Ensemble production. “Distrust of government was high. Today, we’re again talking about the question: Do we bring some people in our government to trial? Is it better for the country if we dig things up or brush them aside?”
New York Times critic Richard Eder made similar comments when the play opened off-Broadway in November 1978, two months after its world premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. “Shepard’s America has poisoned its roots and destroyed its life,” he noted in his rave review. The following year, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, signifying Shepard’s evolution from avant-garde rebel to recognized genius.
Like so many American dramas, Buried Child is about a mythic yearning to return home, but it provides a grotesque, darkly funny reflection of that timeless theme. After six years away, a young man named Vince returns to the Illinois farm where he grew up, hoping to introduce his father and grandparents to his new girlfriend.
But the scene he discovers would give Norman Rockwell nightmares. His uncle limps around angrily on one leg. His grandfather is a bitter, sedentary alcoholic. His grandmother, who has found religion, is having an affair with the local preacher. And his father seems to have lost his mind; in a bizarre and bewildering rural ritual, he regularly brings armfuls of carrots or corn into the home for reasons unknown.
As Vince gets drawn back into this gothic world, “We get the feeling that the sins of the ancestors are being visited upon their descendents,” Fox said. “There is the sense of a family curse, and the need to exorcise family secrets.” But while the play contains definite echoes of Greek tragedy, “We’ve been laughing a lot in rehearsal,” the director said. “I think the characters are witty in spite of themselves.”
Fox vividly recalls seeing a Philadelphia production of Buried Child in the late 1970s, while he was still in college. “I was just agog!” he said, recalling his uncertainty as to why the enigmatic play had moved him so deeply.
He saw it again in 1996, when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago mounted an acclaimed revival and took it to Broadway. “I found it more accessible than I remembered,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that Shepard had done some pretty significant rewriting. He took out some of the ambiguity of the original. I think this is his most well-crafted play.”
The same can be said of Albee’s Virginia Woolf (although, in fairness, virtually all of his plays are impeccably structured). It premiered in October 1962, 16 years before Buried Child, and created a considerable stir. “Mr. Albee’s dialogue is dripped in acid,” wrote Howard Taubman in the New York Times, adding that the play is “possessed by raging demons. It is punctuated by comedy, and its language is shot through with savage irony.”
Like Buried Child, the play centers on a profoundly screwed-up American family. Albee’s unhappy home is occupied by a mild-mannered college professor named George and his acerbic wife Martha. She is the daughter of the college’s president, and clearly expected him to follow in her father’s footsteps. The fact that George has fallen short is, for Martha, an unforgivable sin-one she relishes reminding him of at every available opportunity.
The night the play takes place, they have invited back to their home a younger couple not unlike themselves: He’s a recently hired assistant professor at the school; she is looking forward to starting a family. George and Martha proceed to put on something of an impromptu performance for their guests, a show featuring flying insults that produce shocking insights. By the time this long night’s journey is over, wounds have been opened, secrets have been spilled, and something like catharsis has been achieved.
“I feel they love each other deeply and desperately,” said Rubicon artistic director Karyl Lynn Burns, who is playing Martha opposite the George of Emmy and Ovation Award winner Joe Spano. “There are moments where they try to express love, but miss. It’s such an interesting, intricate, beautiful, painful play.”
If Shepard’s play reflected the national disillusionment of the late 1970s, Albee’s defied the optimistic feel of the Kennedy-era early 1960s. Then, as now, the playwright saw his role as kicking people out of their complacency, and inviting them to live their lives without the false comfort of self-deception. Eugene O’Neill allowed his characters to have their pipe dreams; Albee, in contrast, sees these delusions as dangerous.
“The play’s overarching ritual is the stripping away of illusion,” noted Burns. “This takes place through the process of playing games. They arrive at the truth through gamesmanship.”
That, of course, is a great metaphor for the theater, which-at its best-uses artifice to get at a deeper truth. In the words of New York Times critic Ben Brantley, “The two playwrights share a gift that guarantees the survival of their work: a rhythmic sense of speech and imagery that finds the dark, scary poetry behind every domestic arrangement.”
But these are not simply domestic dramas. The familial frustration depicted in the plays symbolizes a lack of cohesion in the larger society. George and Martha are, of course, named for our first president and his wife, and the farmhouse of Buried Child is an all-American tableau.
“People are talking about this as the end of the ‘American era’ or the ‘American century,’” noted Fox. As Albee and Shepard so brilliantly remind us, whether that sad fate comes to pass may depend on our willingness to dig around in the dirt and face what we find.
Buried Child runs Thursday, January 29-Sunday, February 22, with performances Tuesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. at Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). Call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs Thursday, January 29-Sunday, February 22, with performances Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 8 p.m. at Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org. Two special encore performances of Virginia Woolf will be presented at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in conjunction with Arts & Lectures on Wednesday, February 25, and Thursday, February 26, at 7 p.m.