It’s odd to see a play at San Francisco’s venerable Magic Theatre that is not a world premiere; it’s odder still that the revival is the season opener.
But playwright Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” had its world premiere here in 1978 in, as artistic director Loretta Greco calls it, “the house that Sam built” (which may have late, visionary founder-artistic director John Lion spinning in his grave).
Shepard and his director of choice, Robert Woodruff, helped elevate Magic Theatre’s profile on the national scene over the course of the decade or so they spent here. Thus in many ways it’s an apt start to Magic’s 47th season.
In the funny and weird dysfunctional-family drama, patriarch Dodge (a bearded Rod Gnapp, never better — powerful, malevolent and sly) languishes alternately on the couch and floor (wonderfully dreary, frayed set by Andrew Boyce) with a hacking cough.
Others appear: Dodge’s recently returned (after 20 years) and apparently mentally askew older son, Tilden (a focused, detailed portrayal by James Wagner), who enters with an armful of corn from the unplanted back lot; one-legged son Bradley (played with explosive ferocity and rage by Patrick Kelly Jones); and Tilden’s son, Vince (wiry, intense Patrick Alparone), whom nobody’s seen for six years and nobody seems to recognize (or else pretends not to recognize).
Vince brings along his girlfriend, Shelly (Elaine Garrity, who on opening night had not yet fully inhabited the character nor made Shelly’s memorably giggly entrance believable).
Dodge’s wife (played cartoonishly by Denise Balthrop Cassidy) alternately shrieks from upstairs and descends to berate everyone except for her presumed lover, Father Dewis (a fine Lawrence Radecker).
The low-rent setting, the mysterious ways in which the characters interact, the family secrets that are alternately denied and hinted at, the sense of a dangerously shifting reality, the teasing and the menace, the colloquial language that flows like poetry and the inconclusive ending recall the plays of Harold Pinter of a decade or two earlier.
Still, this is most assuredly vintage Shepard, part of his ongoing exploration of the fraught and elusive relationships between fathers and sons.
And as such, this production, directed by Greco with attention to the comic nuances and the complexities of the relationships, is deeply satisfying.
Mention too must be made of the excellent sound design by Jake Rodriguez, among the altogether acutely observed design elements.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 6
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org