Sam Shepard’s plays aren’t easy to do. They walk a fine line between absurdism and naturalism. Within a stage environment rich with physical details, audiences witness bizarre behavior and cryptic revelations.
Director Cinnamon Schultz walks that tightrope expertly in Kansas City Actors Theatre’s fine production of “A Lie of the Mind.” She captures exceptional work from a gifted cast.
Shepard’s three-act play, originally staged in 1985, depicts two dysfunctional families bound together by marriage and thrown into conflict by a shocking act of domestic abuse. Thematically rich with complex, layered characters, the story requires acting of a high order to reveal all the nooks and crannies of the relationships.
Like a number of Shepard’s other plays, “A Lie of the Mind” suggests a mythic American past coexisting with a fractured present. The play is set in California and Montana, states that offer magnificent landscapes, but most of the drama unfolds in spartan rooms surrounded by walls of crumbling plaster. Hovering mystically over the action are lost highways, epic road trips, endless western vistas and the bravado of men tormented by their weakness. Guns, hunting and physical violence shine a light on the emotional impotence of Shepard’s male characters, while the play’s women are forced by circumstances to summon strength they didn’t know they had.
The story opens with a late-night phone call from Jake (Brian Paulette) to his younger brother Frankie (Jake Walker). Jake has beaten his wife, Beth, so badly that he believes she is dead. Later Jake explains to Frankie that Beth was in a play and dressed in increasingly provocative outfits each day before leaving for rehearsals. Blinded by jealousy, Jake snapped.
Realizing that despite his jealous rage, he in fact loved and needed Beth, he collapses into a state of semi-consciousness. Lorraine, his mother (Merle Moores), arrives to take charge of his convalescence, while his seemingly detached sister Sally (Hillary Clemens) initially keeps a cool distance.
But Beth (Christina Schafer) didn’t die. We first see her in a hospital bed. Her face is red, black and blue and her head is bandaged. Her brother Mike (Forrest Attaway) is there to encourage her as she tries to speak and takes halting steps. At one point her parents, Baylor (Gary Neal Johnson) and Meg (Jan Rogge), make the drive down from Montana, but Baylor seems more interested in mule-trading that comforting his daughter. Initially, Meg seems clueless.
Eventually, Baylor and Meg return the brain-damaged Beth to Montana to begin her long recovery. Eventually, Jake makes the trek from California in an effort to see Beth again.
That’s all the plot you’ll get out of me. But suffice to say that dark family secrets are revealed, some characters undergo spiritual renewal while others find their consciousness raised by the traumatic events of the play. Beth, struggling each day to make sense of her thoughts and to communicate them, emerges as a truth-teller in family of deniers.
Schultz keeps her eye on the ball, articulating Shepard’s themes with utmost clarity. And her actors deliver the goods. Perhaps most impressive in a show full of terrific performances is Schafer, whose delivery of Beth’s halting, fractured thoughts is so precise, so clearly played and so transcendent that you never question a second of it. The character changes as the play progresses and her language becomes clearer, but her recovery leads her in an unpredictable direction.
Paulette is at his intense best, finding humor in Jake’s bizarre behavior. He and Walker, as the caring but perplexed brother, achieve a convincing sibling relationship. Moores is in top form, finding the right balance between Lorraine’s obsessive mothering and willful denial of the past. Moores and Clemens share one of the most powerful scenes in the play as Sally reveals life-changing secrets about her father and a fateful road trip she shared with Jake.
Attaway consistently delivers small, telling moments as a reluctant care-giver. Johnson, as the the crusty Baylor, a man who feels besieged by the women in his family, delivers some of his best work. And Rogge’s portrayal of Meg shows the character to have much more insight than her initial cluelessness suggests.
Scenic designer Bret Engle creates a rustic playing area and includes both California and Montana locations. Costume designer Gretchen Halle serves the play well while adding a few well-placed visual flourishes. And Ashley Kok’s lighting design creates palpable atmosphere and subtle mood shifts. Sound designer Jonathan Robertson makes good use of an Americana score performed by Kasey Rausch and Marco Pascolini.
There is much humor in this play. And, yes, a lot of is grim. But Shepard’s work will haunt some viewers for days, months and years. His attention is on love as both a destructive force and a source of healing. It can be an illusion and sometimes it gets us to do crazy things we can’t explain. But Shepard suggests when you strip away all the delusions, illusions and “lies of the mind,” we’re left with love as an unalterable force that can never be explained. It’s the only game in town.
Instead of pat answers, what you get with this play are fascinating characters struggling to make sense of a chaotic universe. Virtually every character is a metaphor and the narrative arc is inherently symbolic.
But that doesn’t stop Shepard from telling one hell of a story.
“A Lie of the Mind” runs through Oct. 1 at the City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.com.