1978, Illinois. Shepard describes the room, with a sofa, an old-fashioned television, and a side table with many pill bottles on it. Dodge, a sickly man in his late 70s, watches the television. It's raining outside and he listens to the rain for a moment, before pulling a bottle of whiskey out from under one of the cushions and taking a swig. He begins coughing uncontrollably, when his wife Halie, a woman in her mid-60s, calls to him. She asks if he wants a pill and he doesn't answer, just takes another swig.
Halie blames Dodge's behavior on the rain, and he continues to not answer her. He takes out a pack of cigarettes and the couple argues about whether or not Dodge should take another pill, with Halie suggesting that, even if pills are not particularly Christian, if they help with the suffering, they are good. She tells him not to watch horse racing, but he tells her that the horse racing does not happen on Sundays.
When Halie says that she once went to the horse races with a horse breeder, a "wonderful man," she cannot remember if it happened in Florida or California, but remembers that they won a lot of money. Dodge mocks her as she recalls it. Halie tells Dodge that if he needs anything he should ask their oldest son, Tilden, who is in the kitchen. Dodge is surprised to hear that Tilden is there, and Halie tells him that Bradley will be over later to cut his hair.
Dodge is upset to hear that Bradley is going to cut his hair, since the last time he did it, he didn't do a good job. Meanwhile, Halie says she has to meet Father Dewis for lunch. Dodge gets annoyed, imagining that Halie is trying to make him look like some kind of respectable gentleman, with a pipe, bowler hat, and a copy of The Wall Street Journal, but she tells him she is not trying to do that at all. Dodge is annoyed that Bradley is trying to affect his appearance, insisting that he is an "invisible man," but Halie insists that Tilden will protect him. "Tilden can't even protect himself!" Dodge yells, calling for his son.
Tilden enters, a man in his late 40s, in work clothes, with a butch haircut. "Something about him is profoundly burned out and displaced," Shepard writes. Tilden sets down some ears of corn and tells Dodge that he picked them, even though Dodge insists that there hasn't been corn there since 1935. Dodge orders Tilden to give the corn back to whomever he took it from, but Tilden insists that he picked it from their yard. Dodge references the fact that Tilden came back to their home because he had some trouble in New Mexico, as Tilden takes out some chewing tobacco.
Tilden goes into the kitchen and comes back with a milking stool and a pail. While he's gone, Dodge sneaks some swigs of whiskey. As Tilden husks the corn, Dodge tells him he cannot stay there forever. Tilden tells Dodge that he ought to have worried about him when he was in New Mexico, because there he was the loneliest he's ever been. Tilden asks Dodge for some whiskey, but Dodge denies having any.
Suddenly, Halie calls down and says that Dodge better not be drinking, before ruminating on the fact that they do not have much money, and have to stay healthy. She talks about the fact that Bradley lost his leg by accidentally cutting it off with a chainsaw, and she always hoped that Tilden would help take care of him. She alludes to the fact that Tilden was an All-American fullback, but wound up being a lot of trouble. She also talks about Ansel, a third son, who was exceptionally smart, and could have earned a lot of money for them all, if he had not died.
Halie finally comes down the stairs, dressed all in black, as if in mourning. As she comes down the stairs, she talks about what a "hero" Ansel was and how he would have taken care of them. She talks about the fact that he did not die at war, but in a hotel room, and suggests that Father Dewis went to watch Ansel play basketball. He discusses the fact that she and Father Dewis want to erect a statue of Ansel holding a basketball in one hand and a rifle in the other. She then talks about the fact that Ansel died because he married a Catholic girl, and married into the Mob. "Catholic women are the Devil incarnate," she says, and goes on a rant about Italians, their "black greasy hair" and "cheap cologne." She talks about the fact that as soon as Ansel married the Italian girl, she knew he would be murdered, but she couldn't do anything about it.
Suddenly, Halie spots the corn husks and scolds him for bringing corn in. When Dodge jokes that it's only raining in Illinois, but not in Florida or California, Halie accuses him of talking crazy because of his pills. Halie says that they haven't had corn in years, but Tilden insists that he was standing outside in the rain, and all of a sudden he noticed huge stalks of corn. When Halie scolds him more, Tilden begins to weep while he husks the corn.
Halie references the fact that Bradley is coming over, and Dodge gets upset, insisting that Bradley was born in a hog wallow and ought to stay there.
The play opens on a scenario of domestic misery. Halie and Dodge are an older couple who bicker endlessly, and seemingly in circles. In their dingy apartment on a rainy afternoon, they argue about whether or not to take pills, and Halie polices how Dodge spends his time at home. They are an archetypal image of an aging couple that has grown sick of one another and does nothing but fight. Additionally, Dodge has a horrible cough that he seems to numb with cigarettes, whiskey, and the occasional painkiller. Shepard opens the play on a tawdry scene of desperation, repressed emotion, and decay.
Part of Halie and Dodge's incompatibility each other seems to come from the fact that they are rarely talking about the same thing at the same time. They often cut each other off, contradict what the other is saying, and drown the other out. In this sense, the audience does not have a good sense of who is telling the truth or which of them actually has a handle on the facts. Shepard sets up a play in which the two characters we meet first are each unreliable narrators in their own way. This seems to be partially a product of their senility and cynicism, but also a function of the specific theatrical world Shepard has created, one that is ever so slyly divorced from reality.
In Shepard's vision, the American family home is not a place of comfort and coherence, but rather of violence, invasion, and unwanted control. He stages the family living room as a kind of psychoanalytic battleground, in which different members of the family battle it out for their version of the truth, girding themselves against one another's controlling maneuvers, desperately seeking to maintain some semblance of autonomy in a family unit that demands conformity. Halie and Dodge are each controlling in their own ways, Dodge through his relentless passivity and Halie through her desire to affect change in others.
As much as the characters combat one another and yell, there is a marked vagueness in the language of the play, an emptiness that makes the story all the more mysterious and ambiguous, as if freighted with some kind of meaning, even if we do not know what it is. Dodge and Halie allude to events in the past, but their details are fuzzy. Tilden talks about his loneliness and his past in New Mexico, but we do not hear many details about this time. For all their anger, resentment, and friction, the characters in Buried Child are often unspecific, seemingly haunted by events that they dare not even speak about out loud. The plot of the play is built less around concrete events, and more around the piecing together of the smoke-like mysteries that surround the story of Dodge and Halie's family.
The play, for all its bleak allusions to real life, also contains elements of the supernatural or the absurd. For instance, Tilden brings in a bunch of corn from the backyard, which he says suddenly appeared. Dodge and Halie insist that they haven't been able to grow corn since 1935, but Tilden insists that he did not steal it. Little clarification is given about where the corn came from, with Halie maintaining that there is no corn outside and Tilden insisting that he found it growing in the backyard. In this way, the corn is an almost magical element of the plot, something that suddenly appeared in the yard out of nowhere, with little explanation. The audience wonders, is the corn real? Who can we trust? What does the corn represent?