'Buried Child' at the Abreact still feels fresh and relevant today

Leading its 14th season, the Abreact Theater’s smartly directed and superlatively acted performance of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child delivers the quality and gravity Abreact patrons are used to. The solid showing kicks off what is sure to be an excellent season.

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1979, Child is a classically structured prototypical American family drama with a “dark secret” at the center, updated. Shepard is completing the 20th century arc of Lillian Hellman or Thornton Wilder and using the conventions of the genre to bring American exceptionalism to its logical conclusion.

The play feels fresh and relevant today, raw without being raunchy and twisted without being perverse, the loathsome and broken characters perhaps representing different parts of the American psyche. It could veer into allegory if the characters weren’t so well-rounded and human, and directorial nudging ensures the play has as much to say about Detroit as it does America.

The stage is set up like an average looking living room with a television facing away from the audience, and wouldn’t be out of place in say, the home of a Polish veteran in Hamtramck. It hits rather close to home, and a quirk of the Abreact’s small, but open space is the audience is made to feel inside the living room, part of the family, a mute cousin or a forgotten toddler in a playpen. I also had the strange sense of watching television in reverse, as if the audience was inside the TV watching the family instead of the other way around, a brilliant bit of staging and tidy note about our entertainment choices.

The ensemble cast is proficient and frequently incandescent, but Mike McGettigan’s portrayal of the dimwitted or possibly mentally injured Tilden is gobsmackingly good. It’s the kind of performance that makes me wish there were some Detroit theater awards, where this kind of excellence could be recognized. He has the gravitational pull of a small planet, and even moments in which he is not the focus of attention are sublime and full of pathos. Watching McGettigan watch another character cut carrots in a bucket, and smile when they plink against the bottom of the pail is worth the trip downtown itself.

The costumes, lighting and sound design are all good, if understated, but the real pleasure and value of the Abreact are the performances, the willingness to wrestle with big ideas, and careful staging of some of the world’s best plays. Located inside the Lafayette Lofts building in Corktown, admissions are by donation and reservations are taken by phone or email.

The staff is super friendly, and going to a show has the feel of attending a secret club without any of the exclusion or pretense. There’s the slight air of good-natured anarchy, and everyone is made to feel part of the family. Add a lounge in the back with serve-your-own drinks and small snacks by donation, and it equals a great night out.

Buried Child runs through this weekend, with shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. The season runs through May, and includes Titus Andronicus in early February and 3 Twenty Minute Plays with Drinking in Between, written by locals in late April. See theabreact.com for more information and reservations.

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