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A CurtainUp Review
A Lie of the Mind
By Elyse Sommer
I read the above just before heading off to a press performance of A Lie of the Mind hoping Shepard was wrong. I'm pleased to say he is.
As Buicks are performing better than a lot of other American car models these days, so there's nothing rickety about this final entry in Shepard's cycle of plays exploring the dysfunctional family and, by extension, their country (Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Fool for Love). While director Ethan Hawke hasn't pared Shepard's 3-acter down to the 90-minutes or less that the playwright now seems to prefer, at 2 hours and 40 minutes (with intermission), this A Lie of the Mind is leaner than the original production at the now defunct Promenade Theater, or the last Off-Broadway revival in 2003.
More important than the play's running time is that the New Group's revival is buoyed by an outstanding cast. It also helps that the Acorn Theater's wide stage is ideally suited to accommodate Derek McLane's remarkably detailed set that allows the action to fluidly shift back and forth between the two families at the play's center. The two Western families, one in California and the other in Montana, are separated by a wide, empty expanse of highway but joined through a marriage and the family members' separate yet similar dysfunctional behavior.
Given the importance of brothers in Shepard's plays, what could be more apt than live music composed and performed by brothers Latham and Shelby Gaines, whose Shepard-evoking downtown sonic sculpture exhibit actually inspired Hawke's production. The musical brothers set the tone for the play's opening which finds the two brothers, Jake (Alessandro Nivola) and Frankie (Josh Hamilton) of the California family on the phone. Jake has already let the lies of the mind trick him into believing that Beth (Marin Ireland) his wife is using her activities as an actress as a means to cheat on him. The imagined infidelity caused the always volatile Jake to beat her, probably not a first, but this time so violently that he's convinced she's dead. And so his frantic, frightened phone call to his more normal brother.
Jake's worst fears are again a lie of his mind, Beth isn't dead. However, Jake's beating has left her in bad shape, with brain damage that leaves her mind and speech pattern jumbled. Marin Ireland, last seen giving a knockout performance in Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty, is even more amazing as the aphasic Beth. Her beating-induced aphasia was probably inspired by Shepard's seeing his long time friend and colleague Joseph Chaikin struggle with this language disorder's problems of understanding and expressing language as the result of a stroke. Besides mastering the verbal and physical requirements of this disability, Ireland brings a breathtaking ethereal quality to her role, unforgettably so when she briefly becomes an image of Jake's troubled mind.
Beth too has a brother. Mike (Frank Whaley), like Frankie, appears to be more normal and ready to rescue her — at least so it seems, when we first see him at Beth's hospital bedside. But all the sisters and brothers as well as the mothers and fathers — whether nominally functional like Frankie and his and Jake's sister Sally (a somewhat too low key Maggie Siff)— are damaged and broken in some way, their familial ties frayed and messy.
Beth and Mike's parents Meg (Laurie Metcalf) and Baylor (Keith Carradine), though hardly a poster couple for marital bliss, actually bring some much needed humor to this grim family saga. As the somewhat ditzy, bossed about and verbally abused Meg, Metcalf evokes a mix of strength and and raised-eyebrow irony reminiscent of Ralph Cramden's wife Alice of that old sitcom, The Honeymooners, as when she says "Please don't yell in the house. The walls can't take it."
Keith Carradine is terrific as the grumpy rancher who hates to see deer shooting reduced to a hobby rather than as a way of life he feels compelled to pursue even though he hates eating meat. He's also not averse shooting an innocent man and refusing to have his wound treated, but his sense of propriety will not tolerate having the American flag treated dishonorably. Funny and mean as he is, Baylor is clearly driven by the fear that come with being stuck in the bad part of his life ("The worst part of your life should come first, not last. Why do they save it for the last when yer too old to do anything about it.")
Of the play's other parents, the father who deserted the family long ago is never seen but very much part of the mystery of a lives lived, that living visualized by the oddly neat clutter of objects on the walls and ceiling but also indicative of darkness, and disconnected emptiness. I didn't see Karen Young when she played daughter Sally in the original production of this play but she's right on the mark as the obsessive Lorraine who, undeterred by Sally's revelation about the father's death, finally determines to literally burn her bridges behind her. The photos and other objects of her miserable life will go into a bonfire, replaced by travel folders collected as a first step towards following her deluded vision of home and connection in her native Ireland.
As both fathers need to get away from their families — one to Mexico, Baylor to a hunting shed near his house— both also cling to home and enduring symbols like a respectfully folded flag. Confused and disturbed as all these characters are, they can't get away from each other even though sometimes they confuse one person for another (Beth becomes convinced that Frankie is her husband rather than Jake, Lorraine confuses Jake with the husband who abandoned her).
The kind of people who can't interact normally but beat and shoot each other aren't candidates for a happy ending. Still, Lorraine embarks on her delusional journey to a new-old world with the daughter she seems to dislike in tow, Baylor and Meg manage to fold the flag into a neat tradition honoring triangle, and Meg sees a spark of the fire lit far away by Lorraine. Is it possible that Shepard's vision does allow for a tiny hopeful light to prevent a total blackout of this dismal landscape?
To end as I began. A Lie of the Mind may be a bit like an old Buick — but as that brand is holding up in a troubled auto market, so the current passengers of Mr. Shepard's Buick prove that their unhappy lives can still enthrall even as they appall.
For more about Sam Shepard and links to other work by him we've reviewed, see our Sam Shepard page.