Tragic despair

Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 12, 2008

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DEEP SUFFERING And also deeply funny.

A disturbing restlessness lies at the heart of Sam Shepard's rugged, dysfunctional American West. Men run off and then return, rebel and then cleave. Families burn history and haunt it. Loyalties are arbitrary, or tragic, or both. Inner terrains are precarious and lonely for the members of two families linked by a marriage, in Shepard's harrowing, violent A Lie of the Mind. As produced by The Originals under the direction of Dana Packard, this drama is most disturbing when it is also at its funniest and most absurd.

The play opens in the wake of a nasty domestic assault that paranoid Jake (Dana Packard) has inflicted upon his wife Beth (Jennifer Porter), a small-time actress. It's not the first time, but Jake despondently tells his brother Frankie (William McDonough III) that it's the last: This time, he's sure, he's killed her. Frankie hauls him back to their childhood home, where their mother Lorraine (the great Jackie Oliveri, sassy and hard) and sister Sally (Francesca Jellison) still live, and Jake goes catatonic with despair. But Beth, though bruised blue and battered into deep brain damage, is in fact alive in a hospital bed. Soon, her brother Mike (C. James Roberts) takes her back to the home of their parents, hunter and livestock man Baylor (Michael Howard) and housewife Meg (Koko Keller, deceptively mild). The stage is now set to explore the genetic lines of their pathology.

It leads back through their parents, naturally. Set in their ways, self-absorbed, and myopic to their children's real needs, obsessive, brassy Californian Lorraine and backwoods Montanans Baylor and Meg (all excellent) might have stepped out of a circus mirror. Their children, as a result, are alone: Beth struggles through one shadow landscape of lost language, and Jake lurches through another landscape of darkened memory, as he revisits the death of his father in Mexico.

This production offers some poignant windows into those psychological places: Porter's Beth stutters vertiginously, bringing suspense to her momentum toward deceptively simple words like "costume" or "love." At one point Packard's Jake, on his knees with his father's urn, glances stage left into a low-lit memory of Beth, then looks back to the ashes, which he blows into his own fading light (fine lighting designed by Jamie Grant). In simple moments like these, these actors beautifully evoke the presence of ghosts that their characters cannot express or reconcile.

Such moments actually play more affectingly than some of the drama's more obvious high notes: A major revelation of Sally to Lorraine, about the death of her father, falls a bit flat; Jake's and Mike's higher-decibel outbursts sometimes seem a little short of red blood; the more heavy-handed symbols of Beth's stutters feel, indeed, like symbols. But among this cast's achievements is the ability to convey tragedy through their delivery of small, colloquial details: Lorraine's warm if wry memory of "a sorrel mare and a big, dumb, gray gelding" that she and her husband rode in better days; Jake reminding Sally of the time their dad put on a Lefty Frissell album and spun her around until she puked; Meg softly bemoaning all the venison, venison, venison she's obliged to eat all winter, every year.

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Related: Review: Brown tackles Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, The Originals stage Pinter's Betrayal, Hapgood goes inside the human heart, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Sam Shepard, Sam Shepard, Michael Howard,  More more >
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