A Lie of the Mind
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Xerxes Mehta
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
A Lie of the Mind is considered among the important works by Sam Shepard, one of the most distinctive and acclaimed modern American playwrights. At the same time, it is rarely produced for reasons made clear by this new staging at Rep Stage. While the play receives a skillful production with a talented cast, the result is a work that is powerful yet ultimately frustrating.
A Lie of the Mind opens with a phone call from Jake (Tim Getman), a prototypical Sam Shepard leading man, meaning he is passionate but has trouble fitting into modern society and often expresses himself through bouts of violence. In a fit of jealously Jake has severely beaten his wife Beth (Gina Alvarado) and fears she is dead, although we soon see her hospitalized and recovering from brain damage.
Both Jake and Beth retreat into their families for periods of physical and emotional recovery. Jake returns to his boyhood home where his controlling mother Lorraine (Valerie Leonard) coddles him with soup and a doting affection that borders on the disturbed. Jake’s brother Frankie (Tim Andrés Pabon) and sister Sally (Natasha Staley) are also caught up in the odd dynamics of this darkly comic dysfunctional family. Similarly, Beth’s brother Mike (Cliff Williams III) takes her back to the family homestead in Montana, headed by a cantankerous old rancher named Baylor (Dan Manning) and his good hearted yet ditsy wife Meg (Maureen Kerrigan).
Many of the individual scenes offer an acting feast, and this cast takes advantage of the opportunities. Valerie Leonard gives a marvelous performance as Jake’s mother with comic turns followed by dramatic growth as she ultimately casts off a life of denial about her son and her deceased husband. Her later scenes with Natasha Staley achieve an intimacy and emotional authenticity that does both actresses proud. Similarly, Dan Manning gives a wonderful character performance as a man who prefers the outdoors to the caretaking of women.
The problem with A Lie of the Mind is that the individual scenes work better than the overall play. Director Xerxes Mehta skillfully realizes both the absurdly comic and dramatic possibilities inherent in the depictions of the two families, and we see how they can cling to warped or outmoded perceptions of each other (hence the play’s title). The larger themes, however, are more obscure and the play grows sluggish as it progresses. The ending involves some character choices that are sudden and not dramatically justified, as well as other plot lines where the fates of the characters are not really resolved at all. [Note: in fairness I should point out that the initial production of the play won major awards in 1986, including the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the Outer Critics Award for Best Off-Broadway play.]
If you are a fan of Sam Shepard and want to delve fully into his body of work, you should catch this production. Elena Zlotescu’s set is simple and raw, absolutely well-suited for a Sam Shepard play. Judith Daitsman’s skillful lighting design switches back and forth between the two families on different side of the stage, and highlights key emotional beats in the story. I give props to Rep Stage for tackling such a difficult and complicated work. I am just sorry that Shepard wrote this play at a time when his fame and power might have prevented the judicious rewriting that could have elevated this work to the ranks of his other classics like Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love.
Running Time: 3:10 (two intermissions)
Where: Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD
When: Through March 1st. Wed and Thurs at 7:30 PM, Fri and Sat at 8 PM, and Sat and Sun matinees at 2:30 PM