Theater Reviews

Theater Review: That Face

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Monday, June 21st, 2010

That Face
by Polly Stenham

Minutes before one particular Saturday afternoon matinee performance, a grey-haired woman collided with the corner of the stage on her way to her seat, sustaining bloody gashes on both shins.  As she sat on the edge of the stage, others gathered around her, offering whatever assistance they could until the police and EMS workers arrived  to tend to her wounds.  When they wheeled her out, the audience applauded.

Then the curtain went up, revealing two boarding school girls tormenting a third they had bound to a chair.  The audience entered an entirely different reality, one turned upside down by a mother’s alcoholism and prescription pill addiction, where family members fight for their own survival in ways that seem perfectly normal to them but  bizarre to outsiders.

In a New York Times interview, Polly Stenham, who wrote That Face at 19, expressed her interest in “…seeing how things work when authority goes to bed, and natural order is established…in extreme situations when rules are off, and who wins, and who doesn’t win.”  In the unsupervised privacy of their dorms, Izzy and her accomplice Mia could freely act out their sadistic impulses in their hazing of 13-year-old Alice.

Mia, in an attempt to make life easier for Izzy, had slipped Alice close to 50 milligrams of Valium pilfered from her mother’s stash, a dosage ten times the standard for an adult—more than enough to knock out a young teenager.  The scheduled initiation continues as planned, Alice ends up hospitalized and both girls face expulsion.

The action then shifts to Martha’s bedroom, which exists in a state of suspended authority where boundaries have long ago dissolved.  A woman wakes up in bed while a man remains asleep beside her.  Clutter decorates the space, pictures are tacked haphazardly to the wall, and a wardrobe closet sports a large towel hanging down its front.

The woman lights a cigarette, wakes the man and attempts to secure his forgiveness for some unspecified behavior of the previous night, promising it won’t happen again.  He questions her about a hangover and calls her Martha.  Later, they are visited by a young woman, much to Martha’s annoyance.

As the story unfolds, the audience learns that Martha is mother to the man who shared her bed.  He is 18-year-old Henry, college dropout, aspiring artist and Martha’s caretaker for the previous five years.  The young woman that Martha complains always interrupts them is Henry’s sister, the Mia from the hazing scene.  A father, Hugh, is on his way from Singapore to resolve the situation, having been contacted by someone at the school.  Apparently when Martha had been called, she got nasty and hung up.

These classic family dynamics include an incestuous mother who cuts up her son’s clothing when he fails to return home one night, an absent businessman father who has remarried a younger woman and begun a second family overseas, an almost-adult son who never stops trying to keep his mother from drinking, and a younger adolescent daughter, aligned with her father, who has removed herself from the home front but desperately tries to rescue her brother.

The 90 minutes allotted to developing both plot and characters could have been used to better effect.  Henry, especially, lacked dimension.  His role in the family system must surely generate more inner conflict than was apparent.  The playwright invested Henry with far more emotional energy in her dramatization of his attachment to Martha than in his attempt at separation and the anger that went with it.  Perhaps Stenham lacked access to a model for the Henry role.

On the other hand, the mother seemed observed directly from life.  In the same New York Times interview, Stenham spoke freely about her businessman father with whom she lived (along with her younger sister) after her parents divorced during her early teen years.  When asked about her mother’s being a model for Martha, she denied any autobiographical content, insisting Martha is “…an archetypal British woman, women that my friends and I know well” who is wealthy and looks good enough to escape scrutiny for behavior associated with bipolar disorder.  Nothing in the play suggested Martha was bipolar but even if she was, there would be no way to tell while she was still  abusing alcohol and Valium.

In the end, when his father comes to take Martha away for treatment, Henry is revealed as the tragic hero.  Because he cannot accept defeat after “all the blood” he’s “taken from his heart,” he resists letting someone else take over where he has failed.  His hubris drives him to scream hysterically at Martha, “You piss on me and all I’ve done.” He begs her for another chance, ”so I would know I helped you.”

That Face

New York City Center, Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019


Theater Review: A Lie of the Mind

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Sunday, March 14th, 2010

A Lie of the Mind
by Sam Shepard

The action begins with Frank in his bathrobe, on the phone, worriedly begging his older brother Jake to give him the pay phone number.  Jake says there is no number and keeps repeating, “I killed her.  This time I killed her.”  In the next scene, the two sit at opposite ends of a couch as Jake spins his delusional tale of betrayal by his wife, Beth, who he believes was having an affair with an actor.  Why else, he argued, would she get all dolled up to go to rehearsals?  Frank insists it’s just acting, not real; Jake believes actors become the roles they play.

We meet Beth in a hospital bed, unwrapping bandages from her head, slurring her words, sounding barely coherent, learning to stand and take a step, attempting to convince her brother Mike, who helps her, that she is not dead.  She pleads to be released from the tomb that imprisons her.

Sam Shepard, in his brilliant and creative depiction of profound but distressingly familiar family dysfunction, gives us the basics in the first few minutes of his drama, A Lie of the Mind.  The action unfolds amid an array of objects attached to stage walls and ceiling, the detritus from the lives we will soon encounter on home visits to the families of Jake and Beth.  Reminiscent of a Louise Nevelson sculpture, the set consists of wooden chairs and tables, lamps (some lit), a crib, a wheel chair, an old television, foot lockers, suitcases and much, much more.

Two musicians, Shelby and Latham Gaines, work their magic on the right side of the stage, strumming an old telephone-booth sign, singing into a large enamel pot, playing a broom handle and other instruments as eccentric as the folks on stage.  The director, Ethan Hawke, writes in the play’s notes, “Each instrument has been created to give `VOICE’ to a different character.”

Jake, bereft from losing Beth, returns to his family where his widowed mother, Lorraine, blames his sister Sally for the father’s death and welcomes the opportunity to sequester her dear son from the rest of the world.  She keeps him in bed and feeds him cream of broccoli soup, protecting him from getting into violent confrontations caused by brain attacks that engulf him in intolerable states of fear and feed him paranoid thoughts.  Sally tries to abet Jake’s escape;  the specter of incest haunts the house.

Frank, who carries a bottle of booze, travels to ascertain Beth’s condition and ends up stuck in her family, where the perfectly self-involved father, Baylor, whose focus is hunting, has no patience for the needs of others, and brother Mike desperately seeks to avenge his sister’s brain injury.  Mother Meg lives in a world of complete denial.

And that’s just the general framework.  The plot unfolds with surprising twists and turns, revealing enough about each person for a complete mental status assessment and diagnosis.  The talented actors bring to life individuals with unique pathologies and defense mechanisms, who are simultaneously enmeshed with and disengaged from each other.

Shepard understands domestic violence.  At one point, determined to explain why she misses Jake and still loves him, Beth declares with her brain-addled speech, “He’s still alive in me.”  Jake mourns the loss of the wife he loves dearly despite his having been the agent of her presumed demise.

“Lie of the mind” refers not just to Beth’s traumatic brain injury but also to the rampant psychoses (disconnections from reality) in both families.  Each person lives in a world of her/his own. Shepard writes as an expert on the lying mind, however he might have come by such knowledge.  The play is worth seeing for its window onto a reality well known to anyone who wrestles with symptoms of family-based post-traumatic stress and/or dissociation, and to those who listen to their stories, but seldom seen and/or acknowledged by others.

A Lie of the Mind
The Acorn @ Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street

For an interview with the playwright, see Sam Shepard Opens Up in  The Observer, online, March 21, 2010.