Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of Sam Shepard’s A LIE OF THE MIND by Windsor Jesters
Through June 10th
We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world. – Gautama Buddha
Reality may be defined as: the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. But in truth, “reality” for each of us is different. It is subjective. American psychologist George Kelly proposed his theory of personal constructs, where like scientists, individuals profoundly differ in how they perceive, interpret, and organize their experiences in order to explain the mysteries of life’s events. Thus, we each have our own reality, buried in our own very personal states of consciousness and awareness.
To take it a step further, in quantum theory (about which I know little – that’s my husband/co-reviewer’s arena!) we learn that it is the observer who does in fact shape reality; the universe itself being a mere “mental construction.” Reality as we know it doesn’t even exist unless we are measuring it, observing it, perceiving it. But I digress…
So what happens when our perceptions of reality are so very far from the truth? When reality is completely and pathologically distorted? There are countless ways in which past events and our individual perceptions may alter our representations of reality. Sometimes it is due to the ways we have experienced life, our family dynamics, traumas we have faced, even faulty neural “wiring” – but in whatever way it has come about, these misperceptions, or cognitive distortions as they are known, are the ways that our minds may convince us of things that simply aren’t true.
This is at the crux of Sam Shepard’s provocative and penetrating A Lie of the Mind by the Windsor Jesters. His dark tale is a social and psychological miasma of familial dysfunction, spousal abuse, fundamental personality flaws, as well as betrayal, alcoholism, and sheer mendacity. The very grave and sobering issues Shepard exposes which profoundly affect two very different yet similar, inextricably bound families, are aggressively shaken not stirred – agitated to a fragmented and nearly unrecognizable state. In fact, brokenness is a significant theme in and of itself. Every character is damaged. Every relationship is defective. But the characters continue to wander through their largely self-imposed hazes as is, never seeking clarity nor repair.
We know from the intense opening scene that something devastating has taken place – brother seeks assistance from brother, but at the same time, pushes him away. We don’t wait long to learn that a very volatile and unstable Jake (powerfully portrayed by Enrico DiGiacomo) has beaten his wife Beth (a wonderfully vulnerable Marisa Clement) within an inch of her life. There really is a fine line between love and hate – between reality and fantasy. Jake beat Meg because he loved her so much (really?) and he believed she was cheating on him – the first lies of his mind. He now believes she is dead – another lie. She isn’t, however, having instead sustained a devastatingly traumatic brain injury. Jake’s brother Frankie (William Moro is terrific as the earnest but hopelessly inadequate sibling) retrieves him in an effort to save him from himself and brings him home to his grossly overprotective, obsessive mother, Lorraine (played to perfection by Virginia Wolf), who believes she can fix him – a lie of her mind. He’s also tended to by his oft-ignored and frustrated sister, Sally, played by a tragically wounded Christina Giannelli.
After Beth’s arrival at the hospital, her overbearing and quick to anger brother, Mike, rushes to her side. Timm Wims is excellent, alternatingly concerned and attentive then exasperated and annoyed by his sister’s resulting mental impairments. He later returns her to the family ranch with her weary but loving mother Meg (Jan Albetski is quirky and delightfully oblivious) and her detached, gruff, and unloving father, Baylor (a formidable presence by Chris Bushey). The two are akin to a black comedy version of Ralph and Alice of The Honeymooners.
Neither family is equipped to deal with heinous situation at hand which teems with delusion, detachment, denial, and deception (both inter- and intrapersonal). It becomes evident that the interminably messy familial configurations had always thwarted any chance for the members to have realized any normalcy and they continue to thwart any hope for future health or healing. The lies that each of the characters tell themselves continue to weave around the lot of them like the complicated threads of the proverbial spider’s web where no one may be set free.
The levels of dysfunction are significantly heartbreaking. While Jake’s father is dead, he’s haunted by him, his abandonment, and the events surrounding his death, as are his mother, sister, and brother. He’s also repeating the cycles of alcohol as well as physical abuse. Lorraine’s dismissal of her daughter is inexcusable; but the peculiar bond she has to Jake is infantilizing yet borders on incestuous, reminding me of Norma Bates to her son Norman in Psycho or Bates Motel. And speaking of Bates, it also brings to mind Kathy Bates’s character of Annie in Misery when she hobbles author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) so he can’t leave her (you’ll just have to see it to see the connection).
Beth also is repeating cycles of victimization – her brutish father orders her mother around; and Meg just tolerates it with little complaint. She’ll fetch things for him, or even massage his feet when commanded to do so. Mike has become as much of a bear as his father and growls at everyone, losing patience and becoming aggressive at the drop of a hat. And Beth, like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, despite having nearly been killed, still loves her husband. Frankie is a lost soul who has no choice but to go along for the ride.
I must make special mention and commend Clement for her excellent and convincing portrayal of the aphasic Beth – she captures the physical and emotional challenges of such injury to the language center of her brain. As well, each actor successfully delved into the emotional depths of Shepard’s dark and twisted characters bringing them to life in every heartrending moment of the work.
Excellently and insightfully directed by Eric Albetski, this complex work by the Windsor Jesters is thought-provokingly haunting. Utilizing a minimalist set construction designed by Mike Robertson (kudos to the large construction staff) the focus is on Shepard’s characters and his text. Albetski deftly navigated his actors toward bring each character to his or her murky and unstable life. Shout-outs to Robertson and Shannon Esslinger for lighting design/tech and Jan Albetski for costumes.
Shepard’s tale is messy and ultimately unresolved. Unlike other stories, no one experiences a great epiphany and is suddenly transformed. As if doing a karate chop through the spider’s web, the strings dangle and blow in the breeze, disconnected and sad. Chaos is still chaos. The web may be broken, but it still ensnares.
Reality continues to ruin my life. – Bill Watterson, American cartoonist and author
You have to acquire a taste for the works of actor, director, and playwright Sam Shepard. It’s like acquiring a taste for scotch – I wouldn’t know though, I don’t drink Scotch. It’s like acquiring a taste for sushi – I wouldn’t know that either since I don’t eat raw fish – but you get the idea. The point is I did, after a time, acquire a taste for the works of Shepard as a playwright. Though I must confess, I think he is a much better actor than a playwright and I like more of his later works (including the more popular and more produced True West) than his earlier ones which I find too dark and obscure.
That brings us to A Lie of the Mind which premiered in 1985 with a cast that included Harvey Keitel and Aidan Quinn. The original version was over four hours long and was lauded over at the time. (I doubt that today’s audiences would be able to take a four-hour play even with the likes of Keitel and Quinn.)
I am pleased, however, that the Windsor Jesters not only decided to perform this rare gem of a play, but did it in much less than four fours – and yet kept the intensity, the drama, and the power in the theatrical piece. Indeed, although it was shorter than the original performance (I’d love to know what was taken out), the Windsor Jesters’ production was riveting and transfixing. Shepard is one of the few writers and playwrights who I know (maybe with the exception of Bertolt Brecht) who can get away with creating a dark, foreboding landscape with unlikeable characters and yet still have audiences like the play. I believe Shepard’s trick (which is the same as Brecht’s) is the possibility – or rather the hope – for redemption. The motif of purification by fire both through cremation of dead characters and burning houses to the ground, offer the slim chance that a phoenix will be resurrected from the ashes that will carry with it new hope for all.
If one were to look up a synopsis of the plot, one would surely find some paraphrasing of the following: “Told in three acts set in the gritty American West, the story alternates between two families after a severe incident of spousal abuse leaves all their lives altered until the final collision at an isolated cabin.” (This is a quote taken directly from Shepard’s website.) While I think it is a plot trajectory that would hook most theatre goers, with all due respect to Shepard himself, I do not think it is an accurate plot summary. The plot blurb puts the cart before the horse. It is not so much that the egregious incident of spousal abuse severely alters the lives of two families connected by marriage, but rather the spousal abuse is the product (and result) of two people who have been raised in two entirely dysfunctional families. The violent incident is used as a conceit so that we may see behind the curtain the level of dysfunctionality of both families and understand how something like that could have occurred in the first place.
All of the characters are delusional in some way or suffer from “a lie of the mind.” In one camp you have Jake, an unstable brute subject to jealous fits of rage. During one of them, he severely beats his wife and actually thinks he killed her, yet, he cannot get her out of his mind. His alter ego/younger brother Frankie is deluded into thinking there is something salvageable about Jake as does Jake’s mother, Lorraine, who attaches herself to him in almost an incestuous way. In the other camp is Beth who, despite her savage beating, still cannot get Jake out of her mind and even mistakes his younger brother for him. Beth’s parents, Meg and Baylor, are so self-absorbed and mentally defrocked that you can see immediately why Beth may be attracted to a man like Jake, who shares many of the same negative qualities as her father. The apple does not fall far from the tree and cycle of abuse is not broken. In many respects, we can walk away from the play and say that the characters deserve one another – but then there is that fire in the snow (an oxymoron in and of itself) at the end of the play and the chance that something good will come out of all of this chaos.
I once read that Sam Shepard’s plays are like catnip for actors, because there is so much to explore from a character perspective. The cast here does an excellent job at doing just that. Enrico DiGiacomo definitely channels Harvey Keitel in the role of Jake. He gives a convincingly hate me/feel sorry for me dichotomy in his portrayal, where your emotions and feelings about him are in constant shift. Rather than Aidan Quinn, I was reminded of a young Tim Robbins (especially from the film, The Five Corners) in William Moro’s portrayal of Frankie. Chris Bushey was positively priceless as the ranting, self-absorbed Baylor who provided a good deal of the comic relief. Christina Giannelli as Sally and Timm Wims as Mike, were both spot-on as two of the more rooted and less dysfunctional characters. Marisa Clement was perfect as the wounded Beth, beaten to a pulp, but having enough brain cells left to perceive the true essence of people (like when she says to her mother, “You are love”). Virginia Wolf (who Pillow Talking loved in both Night Sky and August: Osage County) gave yet another riveting performance as Lorraine. (I was reminded of Jill Clayburgh’s incestuous mother in Bertolucci’s 1979 film Luna.) Finally, Jan Albetski gave not only a wonderful performance as the ditzy but loving Meg, but she also gave an incredible foot massage! (You’ll just have to see the play.)
Shepard’s A Lie of The Mind is incredibly layered, providing much thought-provoking brain fodder. Eric Albetski, the director, should be commended for coming out of retirement and taking on this esoteric piece of work. I was somewhat reminded of Terrence McNally’s Bringing It All Back Home with Baylor’s complete patriotic self-absorption at the end. Indeed, Shepard’s work is open to so many interpretations, I also could theorize that the entire play is a lie of the mind and Jake really killed his wife and everything after the beating was just a dreamlike sequence comparable to the films Jacob’s Ladder or the award-winning An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. But that is the beauty of Shepard.