March 3, 2010

Mixed Emotions About "A Lie of the Mind"

I should love Sam Shepard. His plays are filled with all kinds of highly theatrical things like eccentric misfits, smart-alecky allusions to pop culture, earthy dialog, and eruptions of violence so over-the-top that they careen into the comic. And he has written such modern classics as Buried Child, True West, Fool for Live and A Lie of the Mind, which currently can be seen in the New Group’s high-wattage revival at The Acorn Theater on Theatre Row.  And yet, I have to confess that I have a tough time getting into Shepard.

Maybe it’s that his work is too macho for me or that its nature is too bleak but the play of his that I’ve liked best is his most recent, Ages of the Moon, which is playing at the Atlantic Theatre through March 21 (click here to read my review) and most people consider that somewhat more gentle and slightly more optimistic work to be atypical Shepard. Still, I can’t help admiring the man. He helped pioneer the off-Broadway theater movement and set a dramaturgical template that scores of others have been inspired by ever since.  So when my theatergoing buddy Bill asked me if I wanted to see A Lie of the Mind, I said yes.

As so many Shepard plays do, this one tells the story of families in conflict.  This time, the fireworks are set off when a man named Jake tells his mother, brother and sister that he has beaten his wife Beth to death.  He hasn’t.  That’s not a spoiler because the audience sees her in the next scene, lying in a hospital bed and so severely wounded that she has become brain damaged. The narrative—although I’m not sure that’s the right word to associate with a Shepard play—follows how the couple and both their families deal with the consequences of this act and with others from the past that have engendered it. 

That past is visible in the centerpiece of Derek McLane’s metaphorical set: a wall of furniture and other objects jumbled against one another in the same way that the play’s people are. And its emotional devastation is underscored by the original music written and performed live by the brothers Shelby and Latham Gaines, who are placed stage left, just outside the area of the play’s action. 

But what kept my attention was the knock-out cast that includes Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Laurie Metcalf and the astonishing Marin Ireland, who brings an inner steeliness to the role of the recovering Beth that undercuts the annoying cutesiness or sentimentality that so many actors use to play disabled people. Guiding all the performances with a sure hand and an obvious love for the work and the actors who bring it to life is the show’s director Ethan Hawke (click here to read New York Magazine’s terrific profile of him).

Unlike many Shepard interpreters, Hawke plays down the symbolism and his more naturalistic approach allows the characters to come across as people that audiences might relate too, although you still wouldn’t want them to be your relatives.  He also cut what I’ve read is the play’s usual four-hour running time to a less arduous-to-watch three.

I can’t say that I walked out of the theater with a newfound love for Shepard’s early work.  Even he told the New York Times that “I see my older plays as clunky relatives to the ones I’m doing now.” (Click here to read the rest of that interview.) But I can say that I’m glad I got to see it.

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