Buried Child muffled by flawed sound design

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Through July 12. Tickets are $30 ($20 students and seniors); visit www.actorstheatresf.org.
Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (at Mason), S.F.

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Sam Shepard's Buried Child — which premiered at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 1978 and won a Pulitzer the following year — begins as a Midwestern Gothic nightmare and ends with the rebirth of the heartland. In between, it tells the story of a young man from Los Angeles who stumbles back into the vortex of his unhinged middle-American family, leaving his bewildered girlfriend alone with them for an entire night while he goes on a statewide search for liquor and self-revelation. This Actors Theatre production is a competent rendering of Shepard's bleakly comic vision, though director Christian Phillips doesn't take enough time with the quiet, haunting moments that have always made Buried Child far more than just another play about a wacky dysfunctional family. A few of those moments are hampered specifically by the weak sound design: Besides the unusual amount of offstage dialogue, so much of the mood of the play depends on strange combinations of audio cues (for instance, the first act ends with a haircut in the rain, the snipping of the clippers complemented by the sound of water), that a crisp audio presentation is absolutely necessary. The uninspired set and lighting design also do little to create the sense of profound disorientation Shepard's words so powerfully evoke. If you're unfamiliar with the play, such shortcomings probably won't matter; but if you were hoping for a production that fulfills the potential of its challenging material, this just isn't the homecoming for you.

 
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