Sam Shepard’s 1985 play “A Lie of the Mind” is currently in production by City Stage Co. at City Stage and Level 5. Directed by Nicole Farmer, the cast is on-point and thanks to their performances, it is a showcase Farmer’s best work as a director here to date.
Sam Shepard is arguably an “actor’s playwright.” Not only is he an accomplished performer, he tends to write scripts that appeal to the actors but not really to broad audiences. Case in point: He is a multiple Obie Award winner (for off-Broadway productions) but only has two Tony nominations (no wins). He’s an arty, intellectual writer—what David Mamet would be with a larger vocabulary and the realization that women are part of the ecological fabric of the planet. Probably his two best known shows are “Fool for Love” and “True West.” Behind that, I would put “Buried Child” and “Lie of the Mind,” all of which, with “Curse of the Starving Class,” fit into his “Family Quintet.”
“A Lie of the Mind” is very clearly two families brought together and torn apart by the marriage of Jake (James Girard Swan) and Beth (Rachel Moser). Jake most kindly can be described as violent, with a short fuse and the ability to bully those around him. Five minutes with his little brother, Frankie (Jacob Keohane), will leave you in no doubt that Frankie’s entire life has revolved around building survival strategies for dealing with his terrifying older brother. Their current crisis is that Jake believes he has killed his wife, Beth, who he beat up so badly that she appeared dead. Beth is not dead, but brain damaged and recuperating first in the hospital with the help of her brother, Mike (Bryce Flint-Somerville). She then goes to her parents’ ranch with Mom, Meg (Kitty Fitzgibbon), and Dad, Baylor (Don Baker). Meanwhile, Frankie needs backup dealing with Jake and has called upon the services of their sister, Sally (Kara Lashley) and Mom, Lorraine (Elaine Nalee). Commence three hours of family abuse: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. It’s painful and pressing as only Sam Shepard can make it be. A drink or two as anesthesia might be advisable to all theatre-goers, because the performances are so impactful, it is almost impossible to distance yourself and emerge unscathed.
Part of Shepard that gets misunderstood is that he’s not writing realism. He begins with a moment of realism—in this case the beating, the realization by Jake, and Beth’s hospitalization and her brother’s care. What Shepard does is take all the base, primal urges and responses to our most basic, frustrating relationships (family and loved ones) that socialization has civilized us to gloss over. He then makes those urges manifest. Mike’s desire to beat Jake and force a public apology to Beth would be any brother’s reaction to seeing his sister nearly killed and permanently altered. But we live in a world where we have been taught not to pursue that form of recourse. Shepard’s universe allows our ids to run the show.
What Shepard and the cast do so very, very well is draw the noose of frustration slowly around the audience’s neck: When Beth still calls out for Jake, her brother screams at her in frustration that the man tried to kill her—how can she want a man who did that to her? Just when and where does that thin veneer of civility drop?
Swan and Moser have a heat between them that pulsates even though they are rarely onstage together. Swan has got the unstable, frightening, yet charismatic and uncomfortably sexy controlling world of Jake sewn up completely. Just to give you an idea: Harvey Keitel originated the role off-Broadway in 1985. Think about that for a moment and then watch Swan in his boxers with an American flag draped around his neck, as he holds out his heart and his twisted mind in a fist toward this woman with whom he’s obsessed. Moser turns in one of the best performances she has ever given; she fully embodies her new role as the family truth-teller with verve.
Don Baker and Kitty Fitzgibbon provide disturbing comedic relief as Beth’s parents, who have ceased to truly interact with each other years ago. To be honest, I needed to hear Fitzgibbon’s mantra: “Please, don’t swear in the house, the walls can’t take it.” The dichotomy of her attentive disregard for her children is a perfectly struck balance matched by Baker’s ferocity. The sparks fly between these two—in every way imaginable.
The equal and opposite reaction to the disregard of Beth’s family is Jake’s overly attentive family. They are keenly aware that they have a maniac on their hands. All three have different coping skills that, when blended together, paint a picture of how he has managed to make it through life this far. Lashley’s Sally has several secrets with her brother that bubble and bob near the surfacE, poking and prodding at her inability to grasp their mother’s attention or love. Nalee’s family matriarch has only one focus: her beautiful first born baby boy, which could almost lead the audience to wonder if the siblings aren’t actually sides and reflections of Jake’s personality rather than fully formed people. The interplay is certainly there. Jake’s departure and Sally’s newfound relationship with her mother and their plans to settle on distant relatives, whose names they don’t even know, both commit to this folly. They go to the point that their trek is the first moment of hope the audience receives after two hours into it.
What Shepard does well, though disconcertingly, is make the impact of this situation of everybody who loves them painfully present. There is no satisfying conclusion (as sadly it can be difficult to find in real life). There is an un-ending struggle for something to stop making sense even to the one who is struggling. As each reacts, eight truly remarkable performances unfold before our eyes. That is almost compensation for the heavy weight material they are bringing to life. It is not a fun evening (nor should be), but the work on stage is remarkable.
A Lie of the Mind
City Stage/Level 5
21 N. Front Street
March 13-15, 20-22, 7:30 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$25 • www.citystageco.com