Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf, Alessandro Nivola, Maggie Siff, Frank Whaley, Karen Young
Playwright Sam Shepard seems to be in vogue of late in New York. Currently, two productions of his plays are running simultaneously at not-for-profit theatres – his latest, Ages of the Moon at the Atlantic, and a revival of his 1985 play A Lie of the Mind, currently at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row as part of the New Group’s current season.
Focusing on obsession and delusion, Shepard’s stark, virulent A Lie of the Mind focuses on two families in turmoil. After budding actress Beth (Marin Ireland) is nearly beaten to death by her physically and emotionally abusive husband Jake (Alessandro Nivola), she returns to her family, cared for by her brother Mike (Frank Whaley) in the hospital, and later taken in by their parents, Meg (Laurie Metcalf) and Baylor (Keith Carradine).
Jake, believing he has murdered his wife, returns to his sister Sally (Maggie Siff), with whom he shares a shocking secret, and his mother Lorraine (Karen Young), who accepts him with open arms despite his crime. Jake’s brother Frankie (Josh Hamilton), meanwhile, travels in search of Meg, whom he believes may still be alive.
As designed by Derek McLane, the play is set within an intricate amalgamation of cabinets, chairs, and bric-a-brac, a few model airplanes looming overhead. A window to the outside is prominently featured upstage, but the windows of the characters’ minds are somewhat more clouded. Misunderstandings abound between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters.
Director Ethan Hawke keeps the production moving forward swiftly with the help of atmospheric music by Gaines, a bluegrass-style music duo who design their own instruments. Hawke splits the stage between the two families’ homes, making effective use of of the Acorn’s wide playing space.
A uniformly excellent group of actors help to counteract a somewhat melodramatic script, which occasionally reaches such heights of emotion as to seem implausible. Marin Ireland makes the most of the thankless role of Beth, displaying physical disabilities and altered speech with a high degree of emotional honesty. Shepard gives Beth some of the play’s most beautiful, frank lines because of the extreme openness of her character, and Ireland ultimately succeeds in conveying the character’s feistiness.
As Beth’s parents, ballsy Keith Carradine and Laurie Metcalf, succeed as Baylor and Meg respectively. Metcalf trades in her usually domineering stage personality for that of a doormat, and she acts the part well. The rest of the cast is similarly effective, without a weak link amongst the bunch.
Though Shepard’s ambitions for his play occasionally exceed its accomplishments, that the play strives for something big is ultimately admirable. As the play comes to a close, its loose ends tied together like an old-fashioned knot, or folded together like the ends of a flag, there’s a feeling of satisfaction at having witnessed such excellent work from a strong company of actors. Their delusions may never fade away, but we as an audience have gotten some clear insight into their psyches.