photo by Creatista
Dodge (Chad Davies) doesn't want help from Shelly (Brie Zepeda) or Bradley (Gabriel Nagy) in "Buried Child."

Back in 1979 when Sam Shepard's “Buried Child” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Shepard was more or less predicting hidden family secrets that went against the grain of approved society in America would be the death of the American family.

While our nation's fragmented families today bear no resemblance to the solid structure of rural parents and children idealized in the 1970s, “Buried Child” continues to resonate as a reminder of those times when people still wanted to believe that owning a home and being head of a family was essential to becoming a man.

Winding Road Theater Ensemble has just opened a wild and juicy production of “Buried Child,” the second Tucson company to do so this season. That alone attests to the strength of Shepard's message.

With veteran director Eva Zorrilla Tessler at the helm, Shepard's play becomes a tour de force for tentatively new Tucson arrival Chad Davies, a striking actor with a luxuriant gray beard. By turns deliberately grumbling and powerful, Davies created in the character Dodge a kind of prototype Big Daddy for the 21st century.

Once an influential Illinois farmer of consequence, Dodge is completely lost and beaten down by the time the play begins. He himself lies buried, under a rumpled blanket on the living room sofa, drinking surreptitiously from a hidden bottle of whiskey.

Over the course of the next two hours, without benefit of an intermission, Dodge gets further beaten down by one wave of conflict after another. Like a defenseless sand bar he is being slowly eroded away until, by the final scene, there is nothing left of him.

Cast in the role of Dodge's oldest son Tilden is Brian Taraz, relentless in the simplicity of his determination to stand for truth. In a manner both touching and threatening Taraz makes Tilden a kind of mad angel, plowing ahead to destroy this family's soul even as he finds among the ashes of their spoiled land a harvest of crops that imply the promise for a bountiful future.

Providing other signposts of dissolution along the way are Dodge's wife Halie (Rosanne Couston), turned to religion as her personal life preserver; Bradley (Gabriel Nagy), a son of Dodge, and Vince (Cole Potwardowski), the son of Tilden, are younger men both troubled in different ways; Shelly (Brie Zepeda), the self-centered friend of Vince; Father Dewis (Glen Coffman), the well-meaning but ineffectual friend of Halie.

Dodge's farmhouse living room brings them all together in a chaos of collisions, each trying to go in a different direction all at once but always bumping into one of the others before getting very far.

The family insight that Shepard first offered nearly 40 years ago has not been heeded. The play makes a much different and more urgent impression today. What was once a warning has now become a cry for survival. WRTE and the cast of “Buried Child” are doing what they can to help.

The play runs through May 20, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, in the upstairs Cabaret Space at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $25 general admission, $22 seniors, students and military, For details and reservations 520-401-3626 or visit windingroadtheater.org

photo by Tim Fuller
In back, Joyce Goldberg (Susan Cookie Baker), Milton Goldberg (David Alexander Johnston). In front, from left, Jerry Goldberg (Christopher Koval), Hettie Goldberg (Susan Claassen), Charlie Goldberg (Andrey Lull). 

What happens when the family business becomes the business family? Does Dad continue as the presumptive CEO? Or maybe Grandmother, with her seniority, becomes the true string puller in this household of executives.

Invisible Theatre has fun imagining one scenario, presenting the world premiere of “Mr. Goldberg's Prodigal Son” by New York playwright John W. Lowell, directed by Molly Lyons.

Mr. Goldberg is Milton Goldberg (David Alexander Johnston) whose father founded and developed the Black Diamond business envelope company into a powerhouse of the industry.

Milton inherited his position as boss, proud to continue the family's envelope heritage, only to get smacked around by the rapid rise of the internet and the unintended consequences of email.

Newspapers suffered a near-fatal blow, as we know, but ask yourself how many people are still buying business envelopes?

Black Diamond under Milton's leadership is deeply in the red. But at home in the Goldberg family's luxurious living room, where this play takes place, Milton is determined to keep wearing his happy face.

Except when the subject is his grown son Jerry (Christopher Koval), who left home 15 years ago on the evening of Purim, a traditionally happy Jewish holiday. Now Purim is a sad reminder of Jerry's disruptive departure. Milton is still angry about it.

But hey, that's only the set-up. “Mr. Goldberg's Prodigal Son” is a family comedy with a heartwarming ending.

Doing their best to keep Milton cheered up on this difficult day are his wife Joyce (Susan Cookie Baker) and youngest son – the good son in every sense of the word, and then some – Charlie (Andrey Lull). Still a teen, Charlie is so good he drinks eight glasses of milk every day and is only going to apply to the best colleges.

Completing the cast is Hettie Goldberg (Susan Claassen), Milton's mother, who arrives with a box of hamantaschen for dessert with their Purim dinner.

When it comes to hamantaschen, apricot is Milton's favorite. But the bakery was all out of apricot that day.

Well, dinner is humming along nicely on wine and one-liners when Jerry comes by unannounced. The 85-minute play is presented without an intermission so Jerry's unexpected arrival immediately sends everyone's conversation tumbling.

Charlie has never seen Jerry before, but instantly recognizes Jerry as a movie star of sorts, while the sad state of Black Diamond's financial situation is soon revealed and the fabric of family life is torn asunder.

So what will be more important? Saving the family or saving the company? You can be sure some madcap maneuvering is on the way.

Lowell's dialogue is full of funny stuff, and some inside theater jokes, too. Mentioning a competitor's envelops, Milton says, “They were licked, but not well licked.”

Since Jewish tradition is to face hardship with a hearty sense of humor, Milton becomes the straight man, literally, with everyone else sending their jokes sailing all around him.

New onstage faces Lull and Koval have easy manners that fit right in to the Invisible Theatre lifestyle. Johnston gets the fallen icon figure just right while both Susans are solid bookends keeping everything nice and tight.

Mr. Goldberg's Prodigal Son” runs through May 6, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, in the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. at Drachman St.

Tickets are $34, with discounts available. Half-price rush tickets go on sale, when available, 30 minutes before each performance.

For details and reservations, 882-9721, or visit invisibletheatre.com