A Lie of the Mind
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
February 16, 2010
A Lie of the Mind is one of Sam Shepard's most ambitious plays, its stakes so high throughout that at times it leans toward melodrama. At rise the action is already in high gear, with Jake having potentially killed his wife Beth and fled the scene. Frankie, his more even-tempered brother, tries to console him that she may still be alive, which we find out to be true. On a split stage, Beth wakes in a hospital with considerable brain damage, her brother Mike by her side.
From there Shepard introduces us to their two families, each with a smorgasbord of dysfunctional relationships. Jake's mother Lorraine ignores her son's crime so that she can return him to his childhood room and smother him as though he were still a boy. He and his sister Sally may or may not have had an incestuous relationship. Meanwhile his brother Frankie, a recluse yet still the clearest thinker of the bunch, is struck with guilt over his brother's actions and sets out for Beth's family home to make amends.
On Beth's side, Mike appoints himself family protector but cares more for recognition than for his sister's actual recovery. Her mother Meg has a full heart but an empty head. And her father Baylor is a distant patriarch whose conflicted dependence on the women in his life is the only thing keeping him from running away. When the two families collide we get a mosaic of disabilities—those of the body, mind, heart, and soul—and the action transcends into a netherworld where no one seems fully put together.
To director Ethan Hawke's credit, the play moves much more swiftly than its 2 hour, 45 minute running time would let on. The script's overabundance of action and imagery benefits from the addition of a live music duo who perform back country vocals and ambient noises. (Particularly interesting was the note in the program that this production sprung from a chance meeting between Hawke and the duo where they expressed mutual admiration for Shepard's work and ruminated on what music "a barn door would make.")
Yet, the story's scope remains too ambitious for the audience to engage emotionally with the characters. They feel like pawns in an elaborate storyline, and while the play remains exciting throughout, it offers little in the way of identification or catharsis.
Jake and Beth are two tough roles, crippled for much of the play following their fateful encounter. Alessandro Nivola struggles to portray Jake's mental collapse; his alternating fits of rage, heartbreak, and helplessness seem too sudden to be believable. It is understandably difficult to hit the epic moments of this character's journey, so perhaps Nivola will settle in over the course of the run. Marin Ireland struggles early on but is wonderful in the later scenes in which Beth regains her sense of place in the world. Especially noteworthy is her use of irony, absolutely not an easy accomplishment given her character's broken speech pattern.
The rest of the cast is capable with a couple standouts. Keith Carradine offers a grounded and comical performance of Baylor, a man who takes the opportunity to sell two mules when picking up Beth from the hospital. Laurie Metcalf as his wife unites the silly aloofness of her character with a generous performance that brings out the best in each of her scene partners. Josh Hamilton (Frankie), Maggie Siff (Sally), Frank Whaley (Mike), and Karen Young (Lorraine) each have fine moments, however their performances more often remain one-note in the face of the enormous stakes surrounding their characters.
Set design by Derek McLane is superb yet paradoxically underutilized. The entire back wall of the Acorn Theatre's stage is lined some twenty feet high with furniture and personal objects evocative of the varied indoor settings. At one point Jake fantasizes Beth climbing up the wall to straddle a chair, her back to the audience, and softly sliding off her nightgown; however this moment was the only one of its kind. I found myself wishing that more of the objects came into play or were referenced by the characters; it seemed like a toy box left unopened. Furniture on the stage itself hinders the action, and an important moment late in the play is obstructed by a couch for much of the audience.
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter is both dynamic and seamless, using several period lamps set among the items on the back wall. Costumes by Catherine Zuber and sound design by Shane Rettig are evocative and serve the play well.
A Lie of the Mind is a difficult play with a multitude of pitfalls, but The New Group does an admirable job navigating them with this production. Many of the shortcomings I've mentioned will iron themselves out during the course of the run. I'd recommend this production for the sheer fact that Shepard's talents for dialogue and characterization are in full swing.