Dodge asks Shelly where she's from and she tells him she grew up in Los Angeles. Dodge says that all the "Sunshine States" are stupid, because they are full of smart-asses. When Vince calls Dodge "Grandpa," Dodge tells him not to. Shelly suggests that maybe they are in the wrong house, but Vince insists that he recognizes the yard. She begs him to leave, but Vince wants to stay. Meanwhile, Dodge rips apart the sofa, pulling the stuffing out looking for the whiskey bottle.
As Shelly starts to leave, thoroughly spooked, Vince holds her there and they struggle. Dodge calls for Tilden, just as Tilden comes in, holding some carrots. Tilden and Vince stare at one another, but Tilden does not seem to recognize his son. Shelly asks Tilden if Vince is his son, but Tilden replies, "I had a son once but we buried him." Dodge yells at Tilden to be quiet about that, as he does not know anything about it and it happened before he was born.
Shelly, trying to be helpful, takes the carrots from Tilden, holding them in her arms. He tells her that the yard is full of carrots, corn, and potatoes. He offers to get her a pail and a knife and she offers to cook them. When Vince recommends that Dodge lie down, Dodge insists that every time he lies down, something bad happens: "They'll steal your bottle! They'll cut your hair! They'll murder your children! That's what'll happen."
Vince tries to get Shelly to put down the carrots, but she insists that she is trying to help. She tells him that she does not want to be there, but that she will do whatever she has to do to survive the experience. Vince scolds her and tells her to put down the carrots. Tilden interrupts them, coming in with a milking stool and a pail, which Shelly uses to peel and cut the carrots. Dodge stares at her while she does, commenting on her beauty. Meanwhile Vince tries to mine Dodge's memory by showing him a trick he used to do—putting his thumb behind his knuckles—but Dodge does not pay attention. He then drums his teeth with his fingernails. He tries to show Dodge and Tilden, but neither of them exhibit any recognition.
Vince pulls up his shirt and pushes his belly together to make it look like a mouth, but Dodge and Tilden continue to ignore him. When Tilden and Dodge still don't recognize him, Vince decides to go get Dodge a bottle, but Shelly begs him to stay. As she continues to cut the carrots, Vince wonders what is going on. "It's true, I'm not married. But I'm also not divorced. I have been known to plunge into sinful infatuation with the Alto Saxophone. Sucking on number 5 reeds deep into the wee, wee hours."
When they still do not recognize him, Vince tells Shelly he has to go out for a minute and get the bottle. She begs him to stay, but eventually agrees to stay behind without him. Vince tells Tilden he's getting Dodge a bottle, but Tilden tells him that Dodge isn't supposed to drink. Dodge insists that Tilden is crazy, and Tilden stares at Shelly's hands as she cuts the carrots. Dodge tells Vince he wants Gold Star Sour Mash and Vince goes.
Vince leaves and Shelly asks Tilden and Dodge if they really don't recognize him, trying to reason with them that maybe his appearance has changed in the last six years. Tilden admits that he sees a face within Vince's face, but still does not know who he is. Tilden asks Shelly to tell him what Vince says to her in private, but she insists that that is private information. Tilden asks to touch her coat, and Shelly agrees, telling him it's rabbit. When he asks to hold it, she takes it off and hands it to him. He appears to love touching it, so Shelly tells him he can keep it. Tilden then goes on a little monologue about how much he used to love driving. "Nothing I dreamed of was better than driving," he says.
The question of what is real and not gets even more complicated when Tilden enters and does not recognize his son, Vince. Vince and Shelly do not even expect him to be in Illinois, as they are driving to New Mexico to see him. He stares at Vince blankly, and when Shelly asks him if Vince is his son, he simply says, "I had a son once but we buried him." The fabric of the narrative is completely subverted here, as the audience has to sift through what is real and fiction, what is a mirage and what is meant to represent life. These unreliable narratives, the wrinkles in reality, seem to suggest that perhaps the entire stage world is a dream, a place where literal reality is quite beside the point, where memories of the past bleed into the present and delusions take the place of facts.
This tear in the fabric of reality is also represented in the sudden agricultural abundance of the long-neglected backyard. Throughout these first two acts, Tilden brings in a number of vegetables, including corn, carrots, and potatoes, even though Dodge and Halie insist that the backyard has not produced a crop since 1935. The abrupt abundance of the backyard is dreamlike and implausible, a symbol of overflowing fertility that ties in to the repetitive references to babies, and the ever-mysterious "buried child" of the title. Is the buried child a vegetable, pulled up from the ground? Is it a real child? Shepard leaves the questions hanging in the air, like riddles.
The house itself is a curious place, one that seems to have a force field of some kind around it. As soon as anyone enters it, they are inside its pull, forced to stay but anxious to leave. For instance, after Tilden enters the house, he is under its spell, compulsively harvesting vegetables from the backyard, unable to even recognize his son Vince. Similarly, Vince and Shelly are caught in a power struggle about whether to stay or leave, but get caught in their own indecision. Shelly begins to help Tilden with his vegetable project, even though she insists that she would rather be anywhere else. Meanwhile Vince tries to control her actions, even though he does not know what they ought to do. The question of staying or going is a complicated one; they are not recognized in the house, but they are easily absorbed into its strange and unpredictable logic.
The characters in Buried Child continually contradict one another, either because of their memory lapses or because of their willful disagreements with one another. This is first presented in the relationship between Dodge and Halie, who argue endlessly and cannot seem to agree on anything. This romantic struggle is then echoed in the relationship between Shelly and Vince, who constantly argue about the best thing to do. They each change their minds rapidly and contradict one another's opinions. One minute Shelly wants to leave, the next she is peeling carrots. One minute Vince is determined to prove his identity to Dodge and Tilden, the next he is unsure and wants to leave. While the plot of the play is not particularly coherent, these hairpin turns in the characters' psychological journeys make up the plot arc of Shepard's play.
While Dodge's memory lapse and difficulty placing his grandson can be chalked up to senility and old age, Tilden's is more curious. Tilden, who Vince remembers as his father, has a strange, almost adolescent countenance, remembering events completely out of sequence, staring at Shelly with fascination as she chops the carrots, asking to hold her rabbit coat, and speaking affectionately of his long lost days of driving a car. His state of arrest and confusion is more mysterious, haunted, and disturbing than Dodge's.