A Lie of the Mind
nytheatre.com review by John Jordan
April 4, 2007
Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind won the New York Drama Critics Best New Play Award in 1986...and for very good reason. It is a darkly humorous, captivating character study of two American families trying to make their place in an insecure world. Sound familiar? That is because it is life!
Currently being revived in a very respectable production by Manhattan Theatre Source, A Lie of the Mind is even more relevant today. Domestic violence, family dysfunction and alcoholism—all major issues in the story—are not only still around, but are sadly even more rampant.
The humor (yes, the humor) of the play is found within the characters and our ability to laugh at them and ourselves. It is definitely one of those plays where an audience may feel uncomfortable laughing because of the subject matter, but my philosophy is if something makes you laugh, then laugh. It would be honestly dreadful to sit through this 2-1/2 hour drama and not laugh once, or at the very least completely depressing, and not the author's intention.
The play opens fast and loud. An extremely rattled Jake makes a frantic phone call to his brother, Frankie. The call is not only a cry for help, but a confession—Jake has beaten his own wife, Beth, to death.
Only she did not die, as we immediately find out in the next hospital scene where Beth has already begun rehabilitation with the help of her brother, Mike. Mike agrees to take Beth to their family's modest Montana ranch, where he still lives with their parents, Baylor and Meg, to continue her care.
Meanwhile, Jake has returned to California to his overly protective mother, Lorraine, who even resorts to stealing Jake's pants to keep him from leaving. Jake's disruptive behavior causes his sister, Sally, to move out and sends Frankie to Montana to learn if Beth, in fact, has really died (apparently Jake had believed he killed his wife prior to this incident, which also turned out to be untrue). When Frankie arrives in Montana, his visit turns into something he could have never imagined.
Back in California, Jake fights with his sister, who thinks he is simply crazy, and mother, who thinks he is still a little boy. When Frankie does not return fast enough for Jake's mind to accept, Jake takes off for Montana himself, wearing only cowboy boots, boxers, an American flag, and his dead father's leather jacket.
The play is constantly leading to the final confrontation between Beth and Jake, and both Shepard and this very grounded MTS production make the journey a worthwhile one.
Under the solid and true-to-Shepard direction of producer Daryl Boling, the ensemble of actors does an overall admirable job of presenting these atypical and multi-dimensional characters.
As soon as the play begins, Todd d'Amour unleashes his emotionally-layered Jake, and for the rest of the evening provides pure and raw talent, live and on stage. Laura Schwenninger, tackling the extremely challenging role of Beth, does not fare as well in connecting to the emotion of the script. Though the play is their "little love story," Jake and Beth never actually have stage time together until the final scene, when Schwenninger's performance is most connected.
Emily Mitchell gives a powerhouse performance as the harsh and overbearing Lorraine. I never wanted her to leave the stage. Ridley Parson finds a fine balance for Mike's different levels. Hank Davies's Baylor gives an understated and authentic performance as Baylor, who cannot understand anyone around him, which makes him very unhappy. Cindy Keiter plays forgetful Meg for laughs (and gets plenty), but there is so much more to this heartbroken and devoted wife and mother.
Campbell Echols and Jeff Wills both give very natural performances of Sally and Frankie, respectively, but seem to have a more difficult time tapping into the vulnerability of their characters.
Boling is also credited with designing the production's brilliant and thought-provoking graphic—a distorted American flag forming a bust of George Washington, set against what seems to be a gorgeous Montana-like sunset.
The costume design by Michael Bevins is subtly fitting for these mid-American folk. Of note is Beth's self-inflicted makeover during Act 2, which could easily have been overdone to the point of farce.
Both David Romans's bare-bones scenic design and Steven Arnold's understated lighting design work well together within the limits of the space to clearly create the alternating settings for each family. The sound design by Drew Bellware richly evokes the Shepard-esque mood, mostly due to the inclusion of original songs contributed by Giovanna Sgarlata and Minetta Creek, Greenwich Village's longest-running bluegrass group.