One of the terrifying beauties of humanity is our ability to make anything true, if only we believe in it hard enough. Sam Shepard's playwriting is a true staple of this culture: his plays very often bend our beliefs, but his characters are always truthful enough to hold us steady. His 1985 drama, A Lie of the Mind, now in an intimate production at Manhattan Theater Source, is filled with metaphoric dressings, and doesn't balk at abusing the American flag to emphasize our own dissociative culture.
Here, the persistence of memory overrides death (the star-battered lovers, Jake and Beth cannot escape their thoughts of each other), and the stubbornness of love overwrites memory (though Beth cannot live with her abusive love, she cannot live without it either, which is why her mind transfers it onto Jake's brother, Frankie). With every line, truth spills over the top of the bucket, revealing self-deception. The one failing in Shepard's play is that to flood us with guilt, he first has to add a lot of rambling to that bucket. It's a flaw in name only, perhaps, for the performances and dialog are a delight, but the show does stagger on for three hours, and there are stretches of indulgent text. The third act is too forceful with its metaphors, too confusing with its conclusions, and too distracted by its subplot.
Buried Child is the better Shepard play, more focused and precise, but A Lie of the Mind gets a lot of mileage from its characters and range. It isn't until Act 3 that the two-pronged narrative (it switches between Jake scenes and Beth scenes) loses its edge. But right from the bat we're drawn in: the play opens with Jake frantically phoning his brother to confess the murder of Beth and then simultaneously surprises and saddens us by revealing that she's actually still alive: in the care of her brother, Mike, but mentally damaged from the abuse.
These sharp initial scenes with Beth are the tragic strength of the show: her desperate cry for Jake ("HEEZ MY HAAAAAAAAAART!"), in spite of all he has done to her, is a wail rivaled only by "Stellllla!" It's a fantastic role, and Laura Schwenniger delivers: she is clear and precise, though her character remains in a fog; she struggles beautifully with words, even though as an actor she is in control. Likewise, Todd d'Amour's portrayal of Jake plays up the petulant violence with a series of childlike mannerisms and an overburdened gravel voice: his eyes flinch with every scolding even as they smolder with a longing for his love.
As the play continues, the circle widens in scope to show us their families: Mike's mother, Lorraine, is a craggy realist, and his sister, Sally, is a tough-as-nails survivor; Beth's father, Baylor, is a domineering rancher, and her mother, Meg, is pliant and a bubbly font of trivia. Cindy Keiter makes for a delightfully dotty Meg ("Don't yell in the house, the walls can't take it! Screaming is not the thing that we were made for"), and Emily Mitchell has the harsh maternal instincts of Lorraine down cold (just watch her play "Helicopter" with Jake).
The scenic design, by David Roman, emphasizes the split-screen differences by using a firm, red-washed adobe color for Jake's solidity, and a cold, drowningly dark aqua blue for Beth's infirmity. All in all, the theatrics are underplayed by director Daryl Boling, but this contrast stands out. (If only the choice to use bluegrass music for the transitions had been so strikingly played up: as is, the upbeat music clashes politely in the background like elevator Muzak.) When it comes down to it, Shepard is more concerned with truth of character than anything else, and this production couldn't ask for a better cast.
Thursday, April 05, 2007