Summary: Vince is driving across the country with his girlfriend Shelly and stops in Illinois to see his grandparents. Immediately after arriving at their house, it becomes clear that something is not quite right: his grandfather does not recognize him, his uncle is putting his fingers in Shelly's mouth and his grandmother is nowhere to be found (we later find out that she is probably having a sexual relationship with the local priest). Vince informs Dodge (his 70 year-old grandfather) that they are on their way to see New Mexico to see his father. Dodge replies that Tilden is no longer in New Mexico, but has moved back to Illinois after "some trouble" and is, once again, living at the family farm home.
As the play progresses, outsider Shelly unearths some of the family history and repeatedly states that she knows that there is a secret and she plans to find out what it is is. The secret is finally revealed in the last few pages of the play when Dodge enters into a long monologue revealing that a baby that is buried in the backyard. The baby is not his, but instead the child of his son Tilden and his wife Halie. After revealing this familial incest and reading his makeshift will aloud, Dodge dies. The final scene of the play involves Halie talking about the growth of new surprise crops while Tilden enters holding the corpse of a baby that he has presumably just exhumed from the backyard.
Thoughts: Well, that just happened.
I have now read this play twice, both times very quickly because I was compelled to reach the climax and learn the secrets of this family. While the major secret of the play obviously involves incest and murder, each of Shepard's seven characters have both a secret and a personality quirk that creates a general feeling of unease throughout the entire play. Usually, these quirks are not explained...they just happen. For example, Bradley sticks his fingers in Shelly's mouth moments after meeting her and cuts his fathers hair while he sleeps--leaving a bloody scalp and, by all description, a terrible haircut. Regardless, no one seems to question either of these choices--including Shelly, who has no familial obligation to put up with these bizarre antics.
Shepard makes extensive use of monologues to reveal the exposition of the play--usually from Halie and Dodge, the oldest members of this family. While I initially criticized this dramatic technique, I also think it is a deliberate choice to indicate that the family has stopped interacting with each other through meaningful dialogue, so monologues directed at strangers are the only effective way of revealing these family secrets.
This play won the Pulitzer Prize twenty years before August: Osage County was given the award, and the parallels between these scripts border on uncomfortable. Clearly, they are both "about" dysfunctional families who have their share of secrets involving incest; but they also start the same way (the patriarch sits in darkness while the matriarch rambles upstairs). Further, the dramatic action is dependent on the reactions of an outsider--Shelly here, Johnna in August: Osage County.