by Michael Meigs
Sam Shepard wrote and directed A Lie of The Mind off Broadway in 1985. It won awards as best play then and the 2010 New York production won the Lucille Lortel award as best revival.
Musing over the claustrophobic evening with these characters, I recalled Harry Allard's picture book collaboration with James Marshall in the 1970's featuring a charmingly inept cartoon family named The Stupids. A Lie of the Mind is a hard evening with a bunch of no-hopers who might just be hybrids of The Stupids and The Nastys -- Deliverance-style degenerates, except that they're out somewhere in the great American West.
Jake has beaten his wife Beth senseless and believes that he killed her. His brother Frankie leaves the gibbering Jake in the custody of their steel-hearted mother Lorraine and travels to the remote ranch owned by Beth's stupid-nasty parents Baylor and Meg and Beth's stupid-nasty-protective brother Mike. It's the last day of the deer season and daddy Baylor sees a shape sneaking through the woods, so he shoots it. Or rather, him, since it's Frankie, trying to get to the house to make sure that beaten Beth is still alive.
She is -- bewildered, speech-impaired and transformed from her undescribed former self into a largely ignored walking angel innocent. As this phantasmagoric family snarls and grumps in their blizzarded isolation, Beth is the only one who's concerned that Frankie's flesh wound is beginning to show signs of gangrene. She takes it into her deluded, damaged mind that she's going to marry Frankie.
This is a genre of American drama that is powerful and grotesque. It fixes our eyes on an American underclass. Tracy Letts followed Shepard into this bleak countryside; Killer Joe comes to mind. These are not comedies, although they may provoke uneasy laughter. They concentrate on degradation, limitation and loss. Shepard is writing about frozen hearts and destroyed lives.
Sheila Gordon as Jake's fiercely protective mother Lorraine is the most coherent character in the piece. Hard as nails, impatient with talk of her boy's immense shortcomings -- after all, he was dropped on his head as a baby -- Lorraine provides him shelter in his boyhood bedroom, caging him in a netherworld that's part womb, part clinic, and part prison. Jake's sister Sally (Hannah Marie Fonder) witnesses this and struggles against it. Of the characters onstage, she's closest to normal in the middle-American corn-fed sense. Even so, there's a disquieting sense in her dialogues with the mad Jake. Jake can't differentiate between sister and wife, and we're goaded by the threat that the scene will tip either into violence or into incest.
Meredith Montgomery is consistent and concentrated in portraying the bewilderment of the muddle-brained Beth. She has demonstrated talent and adaptability with her previous appearances on the Mary Moody Northen stage, and in this role she shows us courage as well. Beth has been beaten down into incomprehension, and over the course of this action she struggles back toward understanding. Montgomery overcomes and defeats her own comely appearance, rendering Beth as blank-eyed, sluggish and bordering on ugly.
All three Actor's Equity participants in this cast of eight are vivid. Rod Porter as the brute Baylor is the alienated hunter-gatherer with no comprehension or tolerance for anyone. Bernadette Nason makes simple-mindedness look deceptively simple.
Lisa Laratta’s set consists mostly of assorted tacky pieces of furniture and a pay phone up high in the corner for Jake’s agonized opening telephone call to brother Frankie. The country & western soundtrack before and after the action is appropriate but the resounding guitar chords intended to punctuate the ends of scenes seemed melodramatic and louder than necessary.
Why would you go into this world with director Jared J. Stein and the cast, and what would you take away from it? There's the inevitable "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I" factor, but that in itself is not enough. Shepard's aggressive drama of loss is still alive on American stages, twenty-six years after its premiere; for example, from Capital T Theatre's May 2011 production of it, Rebecca Robinson as Beth and Travis Dean as Baylor were awarded Austin's B. Iden Payne performance awards as outstanding featured actress and actor. That's one clue to the persistence of Shepard's world: these are characters battered so hard by life that they have been driven to extremes.
In the last analysis, Sam Shepard with his distinctive voice and career of almost fifty years as a prominent playwright, director and actor is what the French would call "un artiste incontornable' -- an artist who must be dealt with. For a reputable theatre devoted to strenuous training both in stagecraft and in the intellectual history of the American stage, Sam Shepard is a must. You don't have to like him, but you do have to recognize that his vision of American desperation has marked the American theatre very deeply.
Review by Willa Goldberg in Hilltop Views, November 14
Review by Adam Roberts for the Austin Chronicle, November 17
Click to view the program for A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University