The human mind is a curious thing. Whether one’s psyche is marred by years of abuse and instability or one is left with life-changing effects from physical trauma, the consequences can be immeasurable. In famed playwright Sam Shepard’s 1985 play, “A Lie of the Mind,” he explores these repercussions through two tragedy-stricken families. City Stage Co. will be brining the tale to life, starting this week on Thursday, March 5.
“A Lie of the Mind” made its debut at the Off-Broadway Promenade Theatre. Many consider it to be part of a quintet of Shepard’s plays that delve into the struggles of dysfunctional families. Told in three acts, the play—which won the 1986 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the 1986 New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best Play, and the 1986 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play—chronicles the aftermath of spousal abuse. Jake beats his wife, Beth, so severely she must be hospitalized and subsequently suffers permanent brain trauma. A tale of redemption, Jake wrestles with his demons while Beth must learn to cope with her condition.
Nicole Farmer, who won the 2013 StarNews Media Wilmington Theater Award for Best Director of a Play for “William and Judith,” will undertake the show’s direction. Farmer was drawn to “A Lie of the Mind” after seeing it when it first premiered. An acting student at The Julliard School at the time, a friend invited Farmer to see a dress rehearsal for the show. She ended up sitting directly behind Shepard, who also directed the original production, and his then-wife, Jessica Lange.
“I spent the next 20 years wanting to play the character of Beth ([who was] originally played by Amanda Plumber and [will be] played by Rachael Moser in our production),” Farmer tells. “Having been in love with this play and a huge fan of Shepard’s writing, it is very fulfilling to have the opportunity to direct the play.”
Farmer also excites in the opportunity to bring a dialogue about domestic abuse to the stage; however, she maintains the play still is more so about the families’ reactions to the situation. Shepard largely became the face behind productions about less-than-perfect families in the ‘80s, which rivaled the sugar-coated family portrayals of the ‘50s.
Despite the dark subject matter, hints of humor guide the show. “The biggest challenge in this play is capturing the essence of how serious the subject matter is but also realizing that the play is not about domestic violence,” James Swan, who will embody the role of Jake, tells. “It’s about what happens when children are not loved and guided through the troubles that will inevitably enter their life. To pull that off and to have the play be as surprisingly funny as it has turned out is not an easy task, but I believe City Stage Co. and Nicole Farmer’s direction have succeeded at that.”
Swan, who also grew up in a family that struggled through issues, latches on to the impetus for Jake’s insecurities—an alcoholic father and strained familial relationships—that led him to act out. Swan notes his own father once told him: “Men don’t hit women; little boys do.” In immersing himself in Jake’s inner workings, Swan aims to capitalize on that phrase by showcasing Jake still is a boy who must deal with the horrendous circumstances from which he came—not that it excuses his actions.
“The biggest challenge is that this character, believe it or not, is somewhat likeable to me,” Swan says. “Not the side of him that beat his wife but the lost little boy he essentially still is. A grown man who hits a woman and is okay with it is a monster. A chronically flawed man who is mentally unstable and never had a good familial upbringing is someone to study and say, ‘what if he had had better guidance.’”
Likewise, Moser has been tasked with the role of Beth. Upon suffering head trauma, the character experiences difficulties with communication. As a result, Beth reverts to a more childlike state.
“Beth is true and pure of heart” Moser describes. “Through her surreal circumstances, she uses what language she does have to tell other characters who they really are. She’s not weak; she’s a fighter. Beth’s language is written to progress, showing her slow, healing new norm. The words are specific.”
“I have a cast that is made up entirely of experienced, seasoned actors who are willing to delve into this very dense and twisted material through the process of method acting, so appropriate to this play,” Farmer concludes. “It is exciting and rewarding to work with actors that are committed enough to the project to rehearse for a six-week period.”
Jacob Keohane (who also will star in the play) and Joseph Ross Helton, who won the 2014 Star News Theater Award for Best Set Design for “Gallery,” will be crafting the beautifully detailed worlds that contrast the two families’ worlds. As well, William Burns will be executing the dramatic lighting that often characterizes Shepherd’s plays. Burns also is taking on sound design, and City Stage Co. artistic director Nick Gray will be taking on costuming.
A Lie of the Mind
City Stage, 21 N. Front St., 5th floor
March 5-8, 13-15, 20-22, Thurs.-Fri., 7:30 p.m., Sun. matinees: 3 p.m.