By Bernard Krumm Columnist
I walked into the Black Box Theater Friday night for the opening of “A Lie of the Mind” to find a minimalist set consisting of a tawdry bedroom, a hospital bed and a flickering motel sign. Admittedly a bit underwhelmed at first, I soon found it to be the perfect setting for this well-rounded, albeit not perfect, production of one of Sam Shepard’s most provocative and thoughtful works.
The play, which first debuted off-Broadway in 1985, revolves around the aftermath of a brutal incident of domestic violence involving Jake (Brendan Hickey) and his wife Beth (Anna Holmes). While the borderline-homicidal Jake retreats to his overbearing and delusional mother (Marina De-Yoe Pedraza), Beth recovers from her injuries in the home of her strangely oblivious parents (Laura Walsh and Flynne Harne) and her gun-toting, vengeful brother, Mike (Zachary Leipert). Both Jake and Beth, in their trauma, regress into a state of childlike optimism. In spite of everything that has happened, they are still drawn to each other. Like many, they suffer for their optimism while the rest of us turn a blind eye.
With these brilliantly contrived characters in a perpetual state of confusion, Shepard drives home the image of an America in decline due to ignorance, unchecked optimism and misplaced nationalism.
As I said before, I grew to appreciate the design concept for this production, directed with precision by Jean Giebel. The set pieces reflect the darker side of America and reinforce the prominent theme of dysfunction. From a practical standpoint, it allows for an easy transition between the two households. Chip Connell’s sad yet optimistic music fits in well, although his voice wavers from time to time.
The majority of this ensemble cast is able to breathe exciting life into these complex characters. As the paranoid and abusive Jake, Brendan Hickey’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to flesh out the sympathetic side of this brutish character by highlighting his frantic remorse and childlike demeanor. Anna Holmes’s performance as the brain damaged Beth, easily the most challenging character to play, is at once touching and heartbreaking. She exercises great restraint and avoids an overblown portrayal.
The only character who seems to be aware of the situation is Jake’s brother Frankie, played by Will Atkins. While his abilities as a dramatic actor are questionable, Atkins executes perfect comic timing and nails the character’s disbelief and outrage. As Beth’s brother, Leipert is disturbingly sadistic without being ridiculous. He also realizes the character’s pathetic desire to please with appropriate desperation.
Flynne Harne turns in one of his best performances yet as Baylor, Beth’s father and possibly the most complex character in the play. The 20 something Harne is able to transform himself into the aging, simple-minded and chauvinistic patriarch who resents women, but is helpless without them. Thanks to Harne’s versatility, one cannot help but feel pity for this sad, bigoted man. My only criticism is that he drops his accent here and there. Right alongside Baylor is his inexplicably doting wife Meg, played by Laura Walsh with a nice blend of humor and humanity.
This production falters when the spotlight is on Jake’s mother and sister (Pedraza and Hannah Schwartz, respectively). Pedraza gives a rather basic interpretation of the mother and isn’t the imposing presence that is intended of the character. In my mind, this is the result of miscasting rather than lack of talent. As for Schwartz, her static performance fails to bring out any complexity or depth.
Towards the end of the play, Baylor asks not to be disturbed while sleeping because he doesn’t want to be woken up from a good dream, perhaps the American dream. Many of the characters remain unaware of the suffering around them, including and especially that of their family members. “A Lie of the Mind” is a brutal, unrelenting and cynical look at family life and American society. Needless to say, I enjoyed it.