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Buried Child at Costa Mesa Playhouse

Updated: Feb 3

Family secrets will be unearthed…literally.

By Dana Hammer

It’s a new year, and we are all addled and brainfogged from too many Hallmark movies, eggnogs, and inane tropes about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s time to get ourselves back in mental shape, and what better way to do so than seeing some live theater; specifically, a deeply intellectual Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Sam Shepard? Answer: there is no better way.

“Buried Child” won the Pulitzer in 1979, and its subject matter still shocks and sobers us today. It’s about a deeply dysfunctional Midwestern family who live in a dilapidated farmhouse, all suffering under the taint of their sins, past and present. 

Vince, who no longer lives in the house, is bringing his girlfriend Shelly home to meet the family. Some of them are raging alcoholics. Some of them have done jail time. Some of them cling desperately to religion to soothe themselves. Some of them had a leg hacked off with a chainsaw. And though they are all a mess, they are messy in unique ways, giving the audience ample space to contemplate the many ways that trauma manifests itself in different people. 

From Left: Cody Aaron Hanify as Vince, Michael Dale Brown as Dodge, Peter Hilton as Tilden and Sage Delaney as Shelly (Photo by Kerrin Piché Serna)

We learn that a major source of this dysfunction is the eponymous “buried child.” The audience slowly discovers just how deep and dark this family’s history is, having broken some of our society’s strictest taboos. 

When working with such troubling subject matter, there are bound to be challenges. Director Michael Serna says, “I think the greatest challenge is deciding as a cast what is really happening in this play. Shepard has given us a complex story with rich characters and lots of mystery. It's not always clear who is telling the truth and what lies fester under the dialogue. It's a fun play to explore.”

Serna also says, “I'm a huge fan of Sam Shepard's work and feel like his plays don't get performed enough locally. This is one of his most challenging works, and I thought it would be a great challenge for me as a Director. Plus, I think it's an important play that any theater lover should experience.” 

In addition, this production will feature some top-notch talent, ensuring us a remarkable theater-going experience. Serna says, “This production features many of the Costa Mesa Playhouse board members in the cast, including our President Mike Brown. I'm lucky to have some of the finest actors in Orange County acting in this production.”

Shelly Day as Halie (Photo by Kerrin Piché Serna)

Your family may not be as messed up as this one, but the themes of buried secrets, family trauma, redemption, and healing resonate with us all on a deep, primal level. There’s a reason this play won a Pulitzer — because it speaks to the human condition in all its ugliness, and finds a way to turn that ugliness into art. So come see “Buried Child” at Costa Mesa Playhouse, and explore the agony of humanity at its very worst. And if you need to go home and watch some cartoons afterward, no one will judge you. 

Dana Hammer is a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer, living in Orange County. You should read her books and plays.

“Buried Child”

Costa Mesa Playhouse 

661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa CA

February 2 - 25, 2024

Shelly Day as Halie (Photo by Kerrin Piché Serna)

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