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Theater Review: A Lie of the Mind

A Lie of the Mind [1]
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 [1].  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 [1]
The Acorn @ Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street

For an interview with the playwright, see Sam Shepard Opens Up [2] in  The Observer, online, March 21, 2010.