Review: Brown tackles Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind

The beast within
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 29, 2010

Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime was scheduled for this season at Brown University Theatre/Sock & Buskin, but the playwright pulled it from production availability to update the 1972 play, as he had done in 1995. It's set in rock 'n' roll space, so it made sense to reestablish the with-it vibe if he didn't want it to come across like a period piece.

So director Lowry Marshall replaced it with Shepard's A Lie of the Mind (through October 3), using the actors who successfully auditioned for the other play. That helps explain the miscasting of a couple of the characters and the consequent shrill tone of scenes that need instead to modulate their voice.

Shepard's family plays make psychiatric case studies of dysfunction look like bedtime reading. Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West — the playwright liked to talk to a father onstage that he couldn't offstage. His plays tend to be set in the West, the land of fiercely independent men who don't like to say much. They made an impression on him when he worked on a ranch in his youth.

A Lie of the Mind brings in two families and hits the ground running with a violent act whose momentum keeps emotions swirling till the end. Jake (Morgan Ritchie) has beaten his wife Beth (Olivia Harding) so badly that he thinks he's left her dead "this time." That's what he is regretfully telling his brother, Frankie (Dan Ricker), on the phone. After that brief exchange, in semi-darkness that disembodies the voices, we see Beth in a hospital bed, her head swathed in bandages, being comforted by her brother, Mike (Zachary Segel).

Beth also thinks she's dead, virtually — her head feels empty; she feels gone there. Her brain damage makes her thoughts and speech confused, and at first she doesn't even recognize her brother. Beth's rattled brain lets only simple thoughts bob to consciousness. Sometimes they have a childlike quality of fresh awareness ("I'm above my feet. Way above") and sometimes they're keenly perceptive ("He's my heart!").

With Beth and Jake, Shepard has excellent components for one of his favorite experiments: traumatizing characters and letting them tell us about and cope with the resulting identity confusion. Both roles get nuanced performances here. Before we meet him, Jake had been a conventional, uninteresting wife-beater, with conventional confusions and excuses — she wore high heels to rehearsal to get into character, so he assumed she was cheating on him. He also comes to think that he's dead, in a metaphorical sense.

Even Shepard complained that this play was a little choppy and disjointed. To finesse some transitions, this production occasionally uses onstage musicians, as he did. Here their singing comments sardonically on romance, with such songs as "Old Devil Moan" and "Crazy."

In addition to structural problems, the playwright throws in some elements that pad or decorate rather than illuminate. For example, Jake doesn't remember an automobile accident as a boy when his drunken father burned to death in a truck, even though he had been riding with him. Is this supposed to explain or (shudder) excuse the violence within him? Like Tolstoy's happy families, all wife-beaters are the same, as far as our interest is concerned. Jake's violence isn't excused by his feeling devastated, but he does ironically become more human by suddenly not knowing, in a fundamental sense, who he is. He says that his experience "scared me into another person." Jake has been hurled out of cocky certainty and into our world.

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