Russ Hunt's Reviews

A Lie of the Mind
by Sam Shepard

Theatre UNB / English 3170
Memorial Hall, January 2005

Sam Shepard has a wide, and fairly strange, reputation. Most people,of course, know him through his work in film, principally as an actor infilms like Days of Heaven and The Right Stuff; those whoknow his plays think of him as a designated spokesperson for a sort ofpeculiar view of what the American "wild west" became in the twentiethcentury. He's rarely regarded as a particularly or adventurously theatricalwriter: what people remember are characters and stories and the settingof much of his work in the rural near west, and they tend to think of himas a sort of native, untrained talent, arriving in New York and writingpretty directly out of his experience of the rowdy, rough-and-tumble workadaywest.

In fact, though, Shepard's plays are complex and rich theatrical explorations,rife with self-referential ironies and dramatic tricks. In an early scenein A Lie of the Mind, for instance, Jake, ranting about his would-beactress wife's unfaithfulness, says about acting, "That's no job! I'vehad jobs before. I know what a job is. A job is where you work. A job iswhere you don't have fun. You don't dick around tryin' to pretend you'resomebody else. You work. Work is work!"

Shepard's scenes, too, often seem almost to have been conceived of almostas acting exercises: specializing in two-person dialogue and confrontation,he regularly takes actors through extended object lesson in relationships,as the characters struggle for dominance and reveal things about themselvesinadvertently.

A Lie of the Mind is a case in point. It's an eight-charactermeditation on themes familiar to any reader of Shepard -- the way peopleare imprisoned by their pasts and their families, the way people in theirseparate prisons can talk back and forth with virtually no understanding,the way the history -- and the present state -- of the American west shapeslives and determines decisions, the fragility of love and the warm oppressionof family. In a fragmented, counterpointed pair of narratives, we witnessthe consequences of what we've come to call "domestic violence." Jake, in a fit of rage, has beaten Beth until they both think she's dead;both of them spend the play in mental ruins, she dealing with "brain damage,"he dealing with what seems a history of perhaps histrionic instabilityand rage. Each is enveloped in, trapped in, nourished by, a weirdly dysfunctionalfamily, and in a way the focus of the play isn't so much on the two centralcharacters as on the way their siblings and parents bear (and occasionallyface) responsibility for who Jake and Beth are, and cope with the consequences.

At the same time, though, the play isn't exactly a domestic drama, andthe concerns that animate it aren't personal ones.  It's as much,or more, a play about the degeneration of frontier culture and the shapeAmerica was in in the eighties (and today).  Somehow the use of anAmerican flag as a central prop (Jake wraps himself in the flag his father,a ruined ex-airman, was buried in, and it becomes a central symbol in thelast act) works to generalize these lost people into the lost Americanfamily. In the same way, in this production, Beth's brother, the maniacallyvengeful Mike, is transmogrified from a car-coated occasional hunter intoa camouflage-clad guerrilla fighter by the time he herds the beaten, torturedand defeated Jake in to face Beth and the family -- who have completelylost interest in vengeance or in Jake. That the parallel with Abu Ghraibmakes us think of the transformed ignorance of America -- from innocenceto denial, from crusader to torturer -- can hardly be accidental.

All this, of course, presents daunting challenges to a company, and,as is often the case, we should be grateful to have campus theatre communitieswhich have the courage to take on challenges at this level, and presenttheatre that otherwise we'd never have a chance to see.  And regularly,as in this case, amateurs rise to a challenge and offer us an evening fullof memorable images and powerful ideas.

The eight-member cast are, in general, remarkably affecting in theirpresentations of these strange and memorable characters (in a way, Shepardseems almost to design his play for apprentice actors, in that each isalmost a caricature, and we come to be interested in them not so much becausewe care about them as people as because we're fascinated to see how theyinteract, and to feel the resonance of what they seem to symbolize). Whilethere were some weaknesses -- for instance, Cherie Nickerson as Jake'ssister Sally often seemed not to have enough to do -- enough differentways to listen defiantly -- while being berated by her mother, Lorraine(Kate Chapman).  And while the scene in which she finally tells hermother how the hated father and husband actually died doesn't have quitethe kind of electricity I think it might have, their relationship stillfeels appropriately prickly, tight, and complicated. And Mike Smith asBaylor, funny and effective as he was, was stuck by Shepard's script atone level for extended periods, and didn't find a way sufficiently to varythe intensity of his futile attempts to exercise proper male control overhis situation.  "Soon's it gets normal we'll talk normal!" he shouts,and rarely does it get normal.

Casey Danaher is a remarkably powerful Jake, especially in the openingscenes, and effectively conveys the recurring sense of barely containedtension, of being about to blow. "This thing in my head," he says to Sally,"This thing that the next moment -- the moment right after this one will-- blow up. Explode with a voice. A scream from a voice I don't know."And opposite him -- though they don't meet until the very end -- ChelseaSeale as the brain-damaged Beth, stuttering and incomprehensible, growsin her effect on the audience all evening.  Struggling to connectwith her brother, bent on avenging her, she tries to say something complicatedabout the prison house she (and, we know, all the characters) live in:"You -- you have a feeling.  You have a feeling I'm you.  I'mnot you! This! This didn't happen to you. This! This thought. You don'tknow this thought."

Jake's brother Frankie is in some ways the typical Horatio figure, theperson who needs to be there to give the more dramatic characters someoneto deal with. As played by Corey Breau, he's appropriately uncomprehendingand victimized as the brother trying to deal with the maniacal Jake, asthe missionary trying to patch things up between his mother and sister,as the ambassador trying to contact Beth's family off in the wilds of Montana,and finally as the passive victim, shot by Baylor, semi-conscious on thecouch, and boxed into what looks to become a relationship with the bizarrelyconfused Beth.

Zita Nyarady as Meg, Beth's long-suffering, oddly powerful and weirdlyinnocent mother, similarly grows on us until the wonderful moment whenshe effortlessly opens the can of ointment Baylor's been struggling withand bellowing about.  And particularly striking is Seann Murray'stransformation from the helpful brother at Beth's bedside to the fatigue-wearingand fanatically revengeful face-painted torturer at the end, ignored bythe suddenly uninterested family for whom he's apparently sacrificed whathumanity he had..

Mike Johnson's set and lighting -- with one serious problem -- createa wonderfully successful, flexible, nuanced acting space, accommodatingpretty much all of Shepard's elaborate (perhaps excessive) demands in theradically limited confines of Memorial Hall. The slanting ramp leadingup to the illuminated telephone booth which begins the play, the separaterooms where the two families work out their destinies, the hospital roomwhere Beth is recovering, the motel room where Jake confronts his brotherFrankie, all are shoehorned into the space, and lit in subtle and accurateways (except for a flickering overhead instrument which distracted us alla couple of times on opening night).  The serious (and surprising)problem was that the third scene, in the motel room, was placed only afoot or so above the floor in front of the raised stage, and could notbe seen by anyone except the fortunate few in the first row. I've neverunderstood why, when using the proscenium stage, the audience couldn'tbe put on risers, creating the effect of a raked house; but that's apparentlynot possible.

While it wasn't clear how we were to take Troy Fulton's live guitarpunctuation from the back of the set -- often it seemed too much in thebackground to affect things, but too loud to ignore -- and there were theusual Memorial Hall problems with heating and sight lines -- it's hardto imagine how we could expect a more powerful reading than Len Falkensteinand his company give us of this powerful and bizarre play.

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