[Sidebar] April 12 -19, 2001
| hot links | listings | reviews |

Damage control

NewGate's explosive A Lie of the Mind

by Bill Rodriguez

A LIE OF THE MIND. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Brien Lang. With Paula Prendergast, Wayne Bridge, Clare Blackmer, Jason Nagel, Wendy Overly, Tom Hurdle, and Neil Santoro. Presented by NewGate Theatre (at Perishable Theatre) through April 22.

[] A Lie of the Mind is a roots story. The Sam Shepard play, so wrenchingly brought to life by NewGate Theatre, traces the nourishing sources of the American character back down, down, down past bedrock to the hissing wellsprings of this country: violence.

For all the volatility of these seven characters in two families and for all the yelling going on, by the end of two and a half hours you realize that you haven't witnessed as much as a punch being thrown. Cleverly, Shepard keeps all the bloodshed behind the arras, showing us only the aftermath, whether a sack of butchered deer parts after we hear a gunshot, or the bandage-wrapped head of a woman after the whined regrets of her husband. The shocking actions are off-stage, in our imaginations; this play is inhabited by the walking consequences.

Director Brien Lang lets that potential energy make the air shimmer with heat. That's the greatest challenge of these performances: showing us or holding back just enough of the spooky emotions that wrack these damaged people.

As the central couple here, Beth and Jake, Paula Prendergast and Wayne Bridge do great work on opposite ends of the volatility spectrum, although we see them together only briefly. As the play opens, Jake is on the phone in the dark, convinced he has beaten Beth to death, whimpering in fear and regret to his brother. "How come I didn't see it comin', Frankie? How come?" he bleats, summing up the single question this play homes in on like a kamikaze's koan. When we first see Jake he is writhing on his brother's couch, bruised knuckles glowing like neon. He sputters on about how his wife must have had a lover because she was "dressing more skimpy and putting on more smells." Bridge is brilliant as Jake, illuminating even the occasionally stilted line of Shepard's, compelling us to look closely at this vicious man not through pathos but through glimmers of humanity.

As Beth, Prendergast commands the stage in her scenes, aided by the playwright's clever set-up: brain damage from her battering has rendered her a wide-eyed innocent, perhaps even more open-hearted than before in her language-hindered aphasia. (What better metaphor, Shepard seems to declare, for the mystery of why such women stay with such men.) Beth can't help herself; she still loves Jake. "He is my heart," she moans.

The family is where we learn to grow up heartless, Shepard is establishing here, just as families learn that from a greater kinship, American heritage. This is taken as a given rather than argued -- on a wall in the Mexico trailer of Jake's dead father, who abandoned the family when the son was a boy, family pictures such as Jake throwing a football are next to a pantheon of American cultural icons, from Gene Autry to Louis Armstrong. Jake's mother Lorraine comes across as a take-charge Oakie Valkyrie, who gets her way by riding rough-shod. Wendy Overly surprises us with vulnerability, though, when Lorraine slows down enough to reveal that it is loneliness, not just bull-headedness, that has her suggest to eternal-adolescent Jake that he stay in his boyhood bedroom and never leave. I couldn't detect where sister Sally (Clare Blackmer) was coming from besides sibling rivalry, so her eventual betrayal of her brother seemed to me capricious, even if typical of this sorry lot.

Jake's brother Frankie (Jason Nagel) eventually tracks down Beth in Montana, to the Heart of Darkness in the form of flinty old patriarch Baylor (Tom Hurdle), a Col. Kurtz who has the family womenfolk enslaved instead of Congo natives. Talk about your American icons: he kills deer "because it's hunting season," so divorced is he from the sources or results of anything he does. When he accidentally shoots Frankie in the leg, he clearly feels as blameless as the bullet. As Baylor's wife Meg, a perfect servant who declares no one has ever offended her in her life, Carol Schlink has her evolve with soft-spoken subtlety into realizing just how soulless her husband has always been. Their son Mike (Neil Santoro) is characterized purely by his actions, such as going to Beth's aid at the hospital and without a second thought offering to drive his mother the 500 miles back to Montana. No way he'll become his father, he might as well be shouting.

In various ways, A Lie of the Mind is Shepard's exploration of 1985 gender politics on the deepest level, how when we men fail to appreciate our anima -- Jung's term for the female component in the male psyche -- we're left with, basically, bestiality. The playwright's greater triumph here is how he nails the corresponding female dynamic. Late in the last act, Beth is inspired by wearing her father's shirt. She clambers atop the injured Frankie, whom she has already said sounds like her husband; she feels more masculine, assertive, and since he is hurt and thereby feminized into gentleness, she knows they would make perfect lovers, complete. A marvelous moment for Shepard and for us.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 2001 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.