A Lie of the Mind. I want to call it “LIES of the Mind”. All the characters in this play inoculate themselves from life’s painful realities with lies. Layers of ‘em. That’s only one aspect of Sam Shepard’s dramatic masterpiece about spousal abuse, family dysfunction and the path of self-destruction his despondent, degenerate characters crawl down. It’s more like LAY of the land; get a handle on this ‘lie of mind’.
Who wants to sit through a three-act play about such grim subject material, anyway? What soap opera: isn’t life sad and seamy enough? Here’s the genius of Sam Shepard. He writes about really messed up people and makes it so interesting the three acts fly by. If the play is executed well, that is. In Dallas’ Second Thought Theatre’s case, the company rises to the occasion with style, grit and relish.
Aside from being fascinating to watch at some squirrelly, voyeuristic level, this play is amazingly cathartic. An actor just can’t sleepwalk his/her role mumbling the lines and looking rough and raunchy bespattered in stage blood and gore. Nope. He/she has to inhabit a role, find plausible motivations (within the ‘mind’s lie’) for irrational behavior and hold the audience perched taut on seat edge through a highly tortured search for transcendence. Kind of like juggling hand grenades, wondering if they’re live or not. Try really hard not to drop one, but keep on juggling.
Helming Second Thought’s production is Mac Lower, a youngish but seasoned director who has studied with Sir Peter Hall, participated in the Edward Albee New Playwrights Workshop and the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. He gives his actors the freedom to follow outrageous instincts and become monsters enmeshed in their fantasies and lies, while leading them through a grounded reality that looks on the surface like “normal” life to an audience’s gaze. He has the Second Thought cast leap, eyes open, into a dark abyss of mind exploration.
Consider the two mothers in the play. Sylvia Luedtke plays Lorraine, mother to the play’s protagonist, psychotic wife abuser Jake. In order to keep him safe from the world that forces him to act like a monster (not his fault, not a bit), she attempts to imprison him in her home in a near catatonic state, killing him with “kindness” and cream of broccoli soup. When he flees, she simply burns the house down. Luedtke portrays Lorraine as an All-American mom, just looking out for her boy and cleaning up after, with simple sincerity and the utter conviction she has the world by its tail and is following the most logical game plan. She’s nuts, but the audience buys her rationale as she treads a fine line between over the top caricature and naturalism. Luedtke has amazing interpretive instincts as an actor; Lower’s direction makes excellent use of them.
Nancy Sherrard plays Meg, mother of Jake’s now brain-damaged wife. Meg is abused, herself, bullied by her cruel sadist husband Baylor, played with relentless, ego-inflated self-delusion by Barry Nash as an unredeemable misogynist bigot. Sherrard has a huge presence on stage and often plays commanding roles; yet her character in this play is beaten down and soft, has retreated to a selective reality fantasy world where she no longer engages in any confrontation. Impeccable timing and nuanced line delivery inform Sherrard’s acting in any role she takes on; here, working with director Lower, she uses these well-honed skills to reveal a cloying simplicity punctuated with brief moments of mental clarity like ephemeral puffs of smoke. Pitiful yet believable, crazy as a loon, she creates a superb metaphorical contrast to Luedtke’s hyper “action mom”.
Can one sympathize with a wife abuser, particularly when one sees the hideous bruising and brain damage inflicted on his wife, the result of savage beatings? Jake is deranged and dangerous, easy to make him a one-dimensional sadistic jerk. Lock him up, fry his ass. Shepard works his artistic magic and gives this character the play’s charge to seek and find transcendence. Chad Gowen Spear merges childish unreasonableness with child-like bewilderment in creating the role. Intensely physical yet reflective, the actor reveals an ever-changing kaleidoscope of attributes and motivations in a presumptively “unthinking” character. Gowen Spear looks like a man who “thinks”; in this role, he must feel first. His mind “lies” on unexpected ground. Director Lower pushes this actor to experience such intense suffering as Jake that it carries him and the audience to a new perspective on the life experience of an abuser. Unusual and unforgettable portrayal.
Guess what, abused wife Beth isn’t just a stereotypical victim here. She’s also pretty handy at dishing out abuse. Oddly enough, her brain-damaged state renders her as the clearest thinker in the play. Anastasia Munoz embraces physical roles with complete abandon. Director Lower ekes every last drop of kinesthetic sensibility out of her performance as Beth. The audience aches with her every bruise and broken bone then watches in horror as she evolves into an inadvertent abuser, too. It’s quite a transformation.
Rounding out the solid ensemble cast are Duane Deering and Bryan Lewis as innocent family members swept up in everyone else’s misery and Elizabeth Evans as Jake’s sister desperately trying to flee the codependent dysfunction surrounding her. They all look and feel like “family” and work as both foils and catalysts for the main characters’ actions. Superb casting all around by Mac Lower. What a fine study of the potential for and expression of madness where “a mind lies.”
Realistic multi-level set design by Chris Jenkins, effective sound with original composition by Heath Gage and lighting by Jason Driggers creates the right ambience. Marty Van Kleeck’s costumes reinforce the stark realities of each character while helping to maintain an overall subdued sense of impending doom.
A Lie of the Mind, by Sam Shepard, runs through November 14 with one matinee on November 8 at the Addison Centre Studio Space next to Water Tower Theatre.
Tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006