Britt Faulkner & Charlie Thurston in "A Lie of the Mind"
(photo: Mark Turek)
It‘s fitting that “A Lie of the Mind” by actor/playwright Sam Shepard ends the current season of productions by Trinity Rep, which began the season with “The Grapes of Wrath”; both in very different ways were about finding threads of hope in the face of threatening despair. Shepard’s play, first performed in 1985, is a tale of two families, both of which give a new dimension to the term “dysfunctional”. Much more realistic than his earlier plays, this is, on the surface at least, an exploration of the American family, initially centered on spousal abuse; beneath this, however, are other disturbing themes. Ostensibly about one married couple, it’s really more about their respective families and their connectedness (or lack thereof). It’s also about denial, sometimes to one another, sometimes to oneself. The former often takes place when a person withholds information that might be deemed potentially harmful (in the traditional concept of a “mental reservation”), whereas the latter more often could be seen not so much as deceitful as it is delusional. These are not so much mistruths as much as they are coping mechanisms and survival techniques. In any case, the members of these two families are, put mildly and literally, quite extraordinary. Depending on one’s tolerance for unsavory characters, this can either affect a theatregoer as powerful or zany, or perhaps both. Few will be lukewarm about this piece of work.
It’s peopled by characters each of whom is also individually a piece of work, and collectively one weird family tree. Jake (Benjamin Grills) and Beth (Britt Faulkner) are estranged, following his brutal physical abuse, based on his confusion between her acting in a theater group and reality. He contends that actors “try to believe so hard they’re the person they…think they become the person”; thus he thinks she herself, in portraying a slut, was unfaithful in real life. Beth, severely brain-damaged from Jake’s beating, is being cared for by her parents, Baylor (Timothy Crowe) and Meg (Anne Scurria). When Jake’s brother Frankie (Charlie Thurston) goes to Beth’s home to see if she’s dead or alive, she transfers her love for Jake to Frankie, who’s been accidentally shot in the leg by Baylor. This budding romance is discouraged by Beth’s brother Mike (Billy Finn) who wants her to have no part of Jake or his family. Jake, in turn, is being cared for by his possessive mother, Lorraine (Janice Duclos) and his sister Sally (Rebecca Gibel). All of them are engaged in various lies of their minds. Beth fabricates fictions that help her survive, while Lorraine feigns indifference, Baylor hides behind the image of a frontier hunter, Jake conveniently represses memories of his father’s death, and so forth. Reality for these folks is an amalgam of separate, even contradictory perceptions. There are some wild repercussions from all these entanglements, and a rather open-ended finale, which is appropriate considering how all of these folks are, figuratively at least, drifters.
Trinity’s troupe of resident company members and Brown University students are clearly up to the task of taking on this bizarre cast of characters. They’ve never been better. Each gets the equivalent of an aria in which she or he has an opportunity to shine, and shine they do. Faulkner and Grills, at the center of the melee, are believably tortured souls, and Duclos, Crowe and Scurria are suitably wacky progenitors of the respective broods (with Scurria, in particular, hilariously out of it). Finn, directed repeatedly to walk into a door (not in Shepard’s stage directions), manages to overcome that strange choice of buffoonery and create yet another creepy family member. Sally, at first on the periphery of their warped world, comes into her own in a devastatingly potent explosion near the end of the lengthy evening. Individually and as a company, the dynamic they create is never boring, even in this play which could have profited immensely from some judicious editing. There simply isn’t enough of a dramatic arc, or change in characters, to support three hours of angst.
As directed by Brian Mertes, this production is strong on character, but overstuffed at times with stage business. On the technical side, the decision was made to discard Shepard’s more realistic set description and go for the surreal. The Set Design by Eugene Lee consists of some curious elements, among them a wall of fifty-two box fans. The Lighting Design by Dan Scully and Sound Design by Broken Chord are perfectly coordinated and, along with the Costume Design by Cait O’Connor, are crucial to the work at hand. Would that the same could be said for the music written and performed by Phillip Roebuck, (with members of the cast as well), which while respecting the playwright’s wishes that “music with an American backside” be an ingredient, is at times too intrusive and in one scene stops the momentum cold, adding unnecessary length to an already overlong production.
In this sometimes overwrought world of people imprisoned by both individual pasts and familial pressures, the question remains as to how well-told this “Lie of the Mind” actually is. Beth awkwardly states that “one’s thoughts cannot be fully communicated to another…You don’t know this thought, How? How can you know this thought? In me”. Isolation can be frightening, but then so can communal living on this level. If Shepard is your cup of tea, this is an absurdist feast.