Of all the plays in Sam Shepard’s canon, “A Lie of the Mind” is the most overdue for a major revival. Winner of both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Outer Critics’ Circle award for Outstanding New Play in 1985, “A Lie of the Mind” has opened auspiciously on the heels of Shepard’s most recent play, “Ages of the Moon.” The running time of this extraordinarily gripping play has been significantly reduced from four to nearly three hours presumably by simply removing the live musical interludes that were inserted originally between each scene. Those have been replaced by underscoring with occasional vocals. Composed by Latham and Shelby Gaines, this haunting soundscape (with additional sound design by Shane Rettig) serves impressively as a mood enhancer during the play.
If you choose, you may elect to scratch the metaphors, ignore the symbolism, and disregard the larger social implications that inevitably reside, as they do in most of Shepard’s plays. Then you can simply allow yourself to be entertained by this extravagantly brutal yet grandly visceral and unsettling play.
Whereas the original 1985 cast (see below) boasted some acting heavyweights, this production by the New Group is notable in its own right. There is great fun in watching this well-knit ensemble dish up and dole out the play’s subliminal dirt and external grime for our pleasure. They collectively deserve credit for bringing new life to this almost ignored masterwork. Some of us have been fortunate to follow the career of Shepard — one of America’s most forceful and intensely motivated writers — from his pioneering Off Broadway days at La Mama and Cafe Cino through the later plays over the experiences of his “The Curse of the Starving Class,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” “True West,” and “Fool for Love.” Therefore the sheer power and force of “A Lie of the Mind” will not come as a surprise.
Shepard has never been noted for sparing our sensitivities or safe-guarding our illusions. For those who have yet to discover just how exhilarating Shepard’s vision of American family life can be, “A Lie of the Mind” will be quite a starting point. This is a play that runs its course like an electric jolt that won’t let go.
On one level, the play — a blood-letting and brutal feud between two bizarre families — dissects in bold, larger-than-life terms the cause behind the most violently personalized war since the Hatfields took on the McCoys. On another level, the play reveals, in the most graphic way, how the contrasting but decidedly aberrant mental states of these people can only be manifested through acts of violence and in states of self-delusion.
Allesandro Nivola is scarily riveting as Jake, the wife-brutalizing man-child. He’s a walking time bomb of rage and remorse. Josh Hamilton offers a fine contrast as Frankie, Jake’s bewildered, ineffectually protective brother. Without overstating the obvious, Maggie Siff wrestles with her incestuous connection with Jake and her troubled relationship with their mother, Lorraine (Karen Young, who played the role of Sally in the original 1985 production). But there’s no incest given more prominence than that exhibited by the spectacularly neurotic Lorraine. They are the components of one family unit whose forte is unchained, externalized emotions.
Over the hill in the other loony household is the battered wife, Beth (Marin Ireland), who, barely alive, has been temporarily rescued by her enraged, revenge-seeking brother, Mike (Frank Whaley). Somewhat lost in their own disassociating haze of denials are their parents: the self-centered Baylor (Keith Carradine) and his batty wife, Meg (Laurie Metcalf). Here’s a family that offers the alternative aberration of living their lives cloaked in fantasies. Ireland’s performances (“reasons to be pretty,” “After Miss Julie”) continue to amaze, and this one is a stunner. Carradine and Metcalf are marvelous and play off each other beautifully as a pair of authentic pea-brains who truly deserve each other.
Two lovers, perversely bonded by a calamitous marital relationship that has resulted in Beth being temporarily crippled but permanently brain damaged by Jake’s beating, are the catalyst in this play. It is a play that pokes serious fun at the mythologies that bind families and at the realities of life at its most primal level. The cast has been primed by the perceptive direction of Ethan Hawke (the actor and Princeton native) to give the gritty dialogue a dynamic tension. Through them, their characters’ often incomprehensible behavior is ferociously funny. The cumulative effect is like watching an outrageously melodramatic modern opera. One can only guess the meaning of the awesome setting by Derek McLane — a floor-to-rafters collage of useless and sentimental detritus apparently collected over a lifetime. Perhaps we are being told that in order to appease the lies of the mind, we are impelled to accommodate clutter.
The play premiered Off-Broadway in 1985 with Geraldine Page, Harvey Keitel, Aiden Quinn, Amanda Plummer, James Gammon, Ann Wedgeworth, Will Patton and Karen Young under the direction of Shepard. ****
“A Lie of the Mind,” through through Saturday, March 20, the New Group at Theater Row, the Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. $61.25. 212-279-4200.