Friday, February 26, 2010

Broken Lives

A Lie of the Mind

A play by Sam Shepard

Directed by Ethan Hawke

Starring Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf, Alessandro Nivola, Maggie Siff, Frank Whaley, Karen Young

Performances January 29-March 20, 2010

The New Group

410 West 42nd Street

Beth, beaten so badly by husband Jake that she’s brain-damaged, is the only character in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind who has an excuse for her unusual behavior. But the others who make up the two families at the heart of this epic Shepard battle aren’t exactly normal either.

And that’s problematic dramatically, for it’s difficult to have a rooting interest in such people for nearly three hours. For the actors, it’s a gold mine, for Shepard’s eight juicy parts have flights of poetic dialogue and caustic conflicts that performers worth their salt would kill be part of. This revival, assuredly directed by Ethan Hawke, features top-notch performances from an octet as cohesive as the best chamber-music ensembles.

Shepard has said that these characters are broken in pieces, a perfect description of their volatile relationships, particularly with the fathers. Jake’s long-dead dad is unseen, of course, but his ghost hovers over what happens with his family: brother Frankie, who ends up at Beth’s house with a gunshot wound in the leg; sister Sally—the sanest of the bunch—who is a fence-mender; and mother Lorraine, who patronizes Jake’s problems at the expense of her other children.Beth’s clan consists of brother Mike, who helps her recover but tires of her wanting to reconcile with Jake; mother Meg, seemingly helpless but secretly strong; and father Baylor, a monomaniacal egoist who shows how important fathers are in the Shepard world of family dysfunction.

The original 1985 off-Broadway production (directed by Shepard) ran four hours, with onstage string music by the Red Clay Ramblers as an integral part. Hawke’s staging shaves over an hour, but the musical ramblings of Shelby and Latham Gaines too obviously underline the drama. Derek McLane’s over-cluttered set has every kind of bric-a-brac plastered to the walls and ceiling, an overly literal symbol of this family’s accumulated madness. The crammed (and cramped) set works against the play’s heightened hyper-realism: there’s a reason the playwright has asked for minimal platforms and a near-bare stage in his original stage directions.

For all its bumpy psychology, A Lie of the Mind resonates for two reasons: Shepard’s dialogue and Hawke’s actors. At its best, Shepard’s writing can cut to the heart of these characters’ search for clarity in their confused states of mind. A splendid example is Beth’s heartrending Act II monologue that explores her new reality: “This is me. This is me now. The way I am. Now. This. All. Different. I—I live inside this. Remember. Remembering. You. You—were one. I know you. I know—love. I know what love is. I can never forget. That. Never.”

Marin Ireland invests Beth with great feeling, Josh Hamilton (Frankie) and Alesaandro Nivola (Jake) convincingly ramp up the brothers’ intensity, Keith Carradine (Baylor) and Laurie Metcalf (Meg) make a nearly madcap pair, Frank Whaley (Mike) properly acts Beth’s protective but annoyed brother, Karen Young (Lorraine) creates an endearingly batty mother and Maggie Siff (Sally) is an oasis of levelheadedness apart from the mental and physical brutality that the overstuffed and erratic—but often compelling—A Lie of the Mind wallows in.

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