When I was growing up, I was fascinated with my dad’s CD of the Red Clay Ramblers’ music for the original off-Broadway run of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. The songs were gothic and foreboding, as was the play’s very title. What could it mean? Is it possible, I wondered, for your own mind to lie to you?
It is indeed, and the eight characters onstage in Theatre Pro Rata’s forceful new production of the 1985 play all, to some extent, are being deceived by their own minds. They know it, but still they struggle to overcome the inner demons that fill their minds with paranoia and ego-inflating balderdash.
The play opens in the wake of an act of domestic violence: Jake (Nate Cheeseman) has just severely beaten his wife Beth (Amy Pirkl), and believes her to be dead. She’s not dead, but Jake’s blows left her with brain damage that’s emptied out many of her memories and makes it difficult for her to speak. The two spouses are taken in by their respective families, each of which is a deep well of unhappiness, anger, and regret.
Needless to say, it’s not one of those feel-good plays…but then, this is Sam Shepard. He specializes in anguish that masks itself in bluster, and — especially in the plays he was writing at the time—in the impotent rage of American men who are handcuffed by red-blooded but largely invalid narratives of masculinity.
In A Lie of the Mind, this plays out both as tragedy and as comedy — as when Beth’s aging father (Don Maloney), his feet frostbit and his back sore from the deer hunting that he farcically insists is necessary for his family’s sustenance, pathetically begs his beleaguered wife (Delta Rae Giordano) to pick his socks up off the floor and hand them to him.
The two families’ homes — in two different Western states — are represented by the two ends of the long Nimbus Theatre stage, with characters occasionally gazing wistfully across, haunted by what they imagine to be happening in the other home. Ursula Bowden contributes an exceptionally evocative set, with the mountains of Montana represented by scraps of cloth sewn into a snowy formation. At the top of the set, stairs and stonework seem to be fragmenting and flying away before our eyes, a visual metaphor for the characters’ rapidly fraying lives.
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern skillfully guides the production from relative naturalism — as we meet the families and begin to understand how they’re coping with Jake’s actions — to a free-flying symbolism that’s increasingly abstracted from any semblance of reality. Each character begins the play with his or her own interpretation of the situation, and by intermission, it’s become clear that no one’s really listening to anyone else at all. In the play’s final act, all the guns—literal and otherwise — go off.
It’s a shouty play, and I found myself wishing for a little more modulation in the shouting — but then, that’s something the characters themselves wish for, and are consistently denied. All of the actors have great moments — notably Joy Dolo as Jake’s sister, the character who perhaps comes closest to seeing through all the lies — but the performance that makes this production a must-see is that of Amy Pirkl, who embodies Beth with a heartbreakingly poignant vulnerability. The fluidity with which Pirkl negotiates Beth’s fluctuating facility with language is an enormously impressive display of craft.
It’s the blustering Maloney, though, who gets the line that, in this election season, you might be most inspired to stand and applaud. Grabbing two items that his hapless son (Bear Brummel) has carried into the house under absurd circumstances, the patriarch bellows, “Haven’t you got anything better to do than to monkey around with weapons and flags?”