If ever an American actor earned his place on the British stage, it’s M. Emmet Walsh. Now on the cusp of 70, the veteran of 101 movies and counting turns out to be a no less astonishing theater animal. It’s not just because the setting is the National Theater that Walsh’s growly, gruff authority recalls the likes of Michael Gambon, with whom he shares a resonantly booming voice. His complete command of festering, decaying patriarch Dodge in the new London revival of “Buried Child” is one of those perfs that immediately makes you want to search out other stage roles he could perform: Hamm in “Endgame,” say, or King Lear. Until that time, Walsh more than rewards a trip into the American absurdist vanguard where Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner once belonged, even if some of the play’s devices have seriously dated over time.
“Buried Child” is by no means the revelation occasioned, say, by “True West,” which this play’s director, Matthew Warchus, previously helmed to seismic effect on both sides of the Atlantic. But even when the mythic aspirations of the text turn murky, the acting is almost always a delight.
And for that, let’s doff a special cap in the direction of Actors’ Equity, which has made possible the intriguingly multinational cast. (Walsh and colleague Elizabeth Franz are part of an Equity exchange, while Lauren Ambrose, of “Six Feet Under” fame, has been granted star status.) For once, you simply cannot see the join in a fusion of talents from America, Britain, and Ireland (the latter ably represented here by “The Weir” alumnus Brendan Coyle), suggesting conclusively that, as far as theater is concerned, artistry knows no boundaries.
Nor, in some respects, does Shepard’s play, which slots into recognizably naturalistic modes only to then be hurled into the phantasmagoric realm of nightmare where familial ghosts cannot be laid to rest and ostensibly “buried” children return as adults to spook their parents. (That’s one way, at least, of explaining Sam Troughton’s Vince, the prodigal son returned home to an Illinois farmhouse that refuses to acknowledge him.)
Put another way, you can have a field day spotting Shepard’s antecedents, from “Oedipus” and Ibsen — the closing emphasis on the “sun” comes by way of “Ghosts” — and on to O’Neill at his most deranged: There’s something of Mary Tyrone in Franz’s moving portrait of Dodge’s wife, Halie, a woman beaten down by loss whose response to life’s abrasions is to redouble her lies.
But no successful play can merely be the sum total of the influences upon it. If “Buried Child” is to breathe anew, it needs the conviction of a cast that plays each moment for real, no matter how bizarre. You accept, for instance, the one-legged desperation of Dodge and Halie’s son Bradley (Sean Murray), only pausing to wonder later how actor Murray has spent an entire evening concealing a limb.
In context, it seems right for one character or another to all but flood the stage with carrots or corn: images of fecundity amid a stillborn household that, in Natasha Katz’s lighting, gets noticeably darker and spookier the more talk there is of sunlight. Rob Howell’s wooden set, open to the elements, hints at the very decomposition and rot that Dodge, most of all, comes to embody.
The prototype of sorts for Shepard’s play would seem to be “The Homecoming,” another drama of domestic usurpation — that one as urban as “Buried Child” is rural.
Playing Vince’s California girlfriend, Shelly, TV name Ambrose has probably the hardest task as the hopeless outsider to a family whose secrets are buried deep within. It’s not just that she bears the brunt of the sort of ready-made barbs (Dodge calls L.A. “stupid country”) around which Shepard would later construct an entire play in “True West.” It’s hard playing the voice of increasingly skeptical sanity, confronted with the madhouse of which Troughton’s poetically swaggering Vince is very much a part. No less radiant on stage than screen, Ambrose can’t resist a few of her “Six Feet Under” signature expressions — the scrunched-up eyes and upturned chin — as if she found the world of the play just too, well, “weird,” as Claire Fisher might say.
That’s where Walsh, even in silence, has the last word, well before Dodge is entombed in full view, a buried child in everything but age. Long after he has snarled and sputtered his last, the actor’s eyes are seen piercing the audience, as if to engulf us all in Shepard’s landscape of sin.