The house that visitors to Charter Theatre stepped into on Halloween night was a whole new realm of haunted. Inside, the family members in Lie With Me move from scene to scene as various forms of the walking emotionally wounded, breaking long spans of glazed denial with a heated jab and harsh words. The rooms seep nauseous levels of dread and regret. The walls are nothing more than knee-high picket fences, leaving no one an inch of privacy.
The stage is set for an exorcism, and this family – bedeviled by the living memory of a long incestuous relationship between the father and one of his daughters – needs it out for good. But no one, including the audience, will get what they want, as the ponderous conversations between characters fail to develop more than an occasional spurt of dramatic momentum. By the end, Lie With Me has laid it all bare, but the result is little more than a torpid cycle of hate and obsessive egoism.
Naturally, the abused daughter Carla (a wonderful Rana Kay) has our compassion from the first moment. Her father Stan (Jim Brady) still lurks on her periphery, shambling through the life she grew up in. He’s still sharing a roof with her mother Joanna (Maura McGinn) and – astoundingly, given the shared knowledge in this clan – her younger sister Susan (Liz Brown), who is more than happy to lounge around in her underwear with the bedroom door open. Paging Doctor Freud.
For all of her trauma, there’s no support to be had for Carla. Little Susie seems to be holding some tenuous conclusions against her, and the only thing reliable in the character of Joanna is that her ignoble descent into dementia (here, a fatal diagnosis) is bound to prompt a cast-wide call to her deathbed. How nice to have the whole family together again.
Things might, perhaps, have been looking up. Early on, we’re happy to see that Carla’s out in the world doing her best. Her night job – a final exam in Psychology unto itself – isn’t listed in the Yellow Pages, but at least she’s tiptoeing into a new relationship with Ian (Ryan Mulkay) who is, thankfully, of her generation. Ian serves as our bewildered tabula rasa, the only one who’s not on the same sordid page, and his bumbling entrance into the family promises to serve as a catalyst for change. It doesn’t go so well, but it is Ian’s scenes in which we begin to observe the varying degrees of shame and concealment. Here, some interesting issues of pity and charity arise, and the notion of lying with your father begins to take on its second meaning.
Believe it or not, before the family reunion it’s just as bleak. Brady, who embodies haggard anxiety like a walking Chris Ware cartoon, takes Stan through a series of despairing dialogues with his two remaining women. Susan, for one, is not shy about throwing her hatred in Stan’s face. “Carla hates me too,” Stan sighs. “But it’s a more complicated and nuanced sort of hate.” No kidding.
These talks are a stylized set of group therapy sessions, full of justly brewed bile, in which all secrets are divulged but no one learns a thing. The obvious step forward after years of rape – get this man as far away from children as possible – is buried under the examination of each character’s novel pathology. Joanne saw it coming but was too afraid to act. Susan’s morbid fascination turned to perverted lust. Joanne, somehow, is jealous. So, somehow, is Susan. These nicely timed bursts of revelation don’t help the plot to thicken; instead it just starts sinking.
As the premise for a domestic drama, Lie With Me poses a challenge to any playwright, since it sets in motion one of the very few scenarios in which the bonds of family do not, in fact, trump personal problems. The task, then, is to find a compelling narrative journey to take. By Act Two, the opportunity has dissipated.
It seems unfair to conclude that the play intends to cast Stan’s position in a morally ambiguous light; the warped rationale he gives to Carla – “It wasn’t something that I did to you. It was something that we did… It was your decision too.” – is dead in the water to any but the most confused and deluded of audience members. Yet, in the absence of any other guiding principle of action, we are left to wonder if Stan’s declarations of misery are intended to intrigue as much as repulse. Sorry, no sympathy here.
The facts are laid bare from scene to scene. Stan is a bad man. Everyone who knows his secret, naturally, hates him. In a just world, he would be punished. So… what now? Good parents agree: a scare must be followed by a lesson. Otherwise it’s called haunting, not helping.
Lie With Me runs one hour and 50 minutes, with an intermission.
Lie With Me
By Keith Bridges
Directed by Jon Cohn
Produced by Charter Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
LIE WITH ME
- David Siegel . Potomac Stages