KPBS AIRDATE: November 19, 2004
German playwright Freidrich Hebbel once said, “In a play, everybody’s right.” Well, in Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” it seems like everybody’s wrong. This 1985 Big Sky, Western epic is populated by disaffected losers, loners and deserted lovers – all adrift in chaos and confusion. Even as they are beaten, shot, humiliated or abused, these troubled, damaged characters are seeking some sort of redemption.
In his bleak story, tinged with black humor, Shepard explores language, emotion and memory — and the ways they can be lost, warped or misinterpreted. Overt violence mirrors the unspoken emotional brutality humans inflict on each other. “Everything lies,” says the menacing, paranoid Jake. Distinguishing fact from fantasy is one of the themes coursing through Shepard’s stark, intense parable of American machismo and family dysfunction.
Jake has beaten his wife senseless. Thinking he’s killed her, he retreats to his mother’s house in California, curled in alcoholic anger and fetal remorse. Meanwhile, his wife survives and returns to her family in backwoods Montana, shattered in multiple ways — brain damaged, inarticulate and clawing her way back to some semblance of life, love and communication. The juxtaposition of these two twisted families is striking, often staggering.
New Village Arts founders Francis Gercke and Kristianne Kurner play the disturbing but compelling couple while co-directing this bold, visceral collaboration with the equally well-regarded Backyard Productions. Rife with potent imagery and blistering emotions, the evening crackles and seethes.
The performances are uniformly outstanding, each a vibrant portrait of the white-trash Westerners Shepard paints with such grit and grace. Gercke’s Jake is impulsive and explosive. Kurner’s Beth is fragile, vulnerable, heartbreaking. Sandra Ellis-Troy is terrific as Jake’s harpy of a mother, a bitter, resentful and over-possessive widow. Joshua Everett Johnson is excellent as her other son, clueless, hapless Frankie, who tries to do what’s right, and nearly dies in the effort. Jessica John imbues the daughter of this family with flashes of reason and rage.
Several states, but a small, sick step away, Daren Scott excels in making Beth’s brother a hotheaded, backwoods bubba who’s driven by revenge. Their parents are magnificently played as a dismal mismatch: Jack Missett as the prickly, misogynistic patriarch and Dana Case as his neglected, twittering wife.
Two balls of tumbleweed are set between the tilted, skewed households, while the play homes in on the gulf that separates individuals, a chasm expanded by jealousy, delusion, denial, violence and the dangers inherent in love. The final scene will not be soon forgotten; surrounded by disaster and despair, an oblivious American Gothic couple assiduously folds the flag. The play may have been written 20 years ago, but that image resonates powerfully today.
I’m Pat Launer, for KBPS news.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.