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Michael Morrison, Casey Coale, Norman Dillon, Jeanette Sebesta and Annie Wild in A Lie of the Mind at Dirt Dogs Theater Company
Michael Morrison, Casey Coale, Norman Dillon, Jeanette Sebesta and Annie Wild in A Lie of the Mind at Dirt Dogs Theater Company
Photo by Gary Griffin

Love Hurts in Sam Shepard's A Lie Of The Mind

In explaining to her daughter Sally, why she’s allowing Jake, her unstable and historically violent son to return home, Lorraine spits out with dismissiveness, “He won’t hurt us, we’re family.”

Under other circumstances, we may have hope that Lorraine is correct, but given that this is a Sam Shepard play, we know just how futile her belief is. Family in Shepard’s world is exactly what hurts us. It’s what eats us alive even as we cling to it like a familiar, soothing blanket covered in smallpox. We long for family ties yet behave in ways that lay to ruin any chance for real connection. We hurt the ones we’re supposed to love.

In A Lie of the Mind, the hurt turns savage.

Jake has beaten his wife, Beth so brutally this time, that he’s convinced she’s dead. Upon hearing the news, Jake’s brother Frankie goes over to Beth’s house to see for himself what state she’s in. Meanwhile, a distraught and seemingly mid-nervous breakdown Jake is left in the hands of his mother, who is all too happy to have her son home, and his sister, afraid and aware of the danger her brother poses.

What Frankie finds is a Beth suffering from brain damage, unable to form full sentences or remember her past. Her mildly concerned but foggy-brained mother Meg is with her, as is her revenge-seeking brother Mike. Beth’s father, resentful of having another female in the house to take care of, is out hunting and mistakes Frankie for a buck, shooting him straight through the thigh. With a storm approaching and no way out, Frankie is forced to take refuge on the family couch for days on end.

The action shifts between each family situation as Shepard reveals to us their particular brand of dysfunction.

Jake’s family has twisted themselves up in secrets and feelings of betrayal, much of which stems from their addicted and AWOL father and his supposed accidental death.

Beth’s family has the more surreal debilitation – namely the art of losing track of things or simply not paying enough attention to invest. “Nobody seems to know what’s going on”, says Mike in exasperation when he realizes that neither his loving mother nor his practical, demanding and selfish father seem to mind that their daughter has been the victim of abuse. Sure, they take Beth in. They want the best for her. But neither is concerned that Jake was the cause of her wounds or really remember that he was even her husband to begin with.

And if you think that’s a hard pill to swallow, Shepard gives us an even more bitter chew. Jake and Beth still cling to the need for each other. Beth may not be able to walk or speak properly …but she has love “in there” for Jake. Remorse isn’t the song Jake sings in his pining for Beth, but rather the fever dream realization that she, in fact, is the only one that hasn’t and won’t betray him.

Yeah. It’s a lot. On many levels.

And clocking in at a solid three and a half hours with two intermissions, it’s more than a lot. In fact, upon reflection, Shepard himself commented on the play’s unwieldiness and at times clunky nature.

So, it takes a lot of chutzpah for Dirt Dogs to stage the rarely produced, A Lie of the Mind. Even more nerve to open it on a holiday weekend no less, a time when people want to go out and party, not necessarily invest 3.5 hours with confusing, problematic and frankly frustrating characters.

But Dirt Dogs doesn't stage for the sake of it. Even with their roster of mostly classic productions, they try to bring something to the table to make us see the work anew. In this case, they succeed about half of the time
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The first thing you notice coming into the theater is that this is the Matchbox 3 space like you’ve never seen it configured (Scenic Design by Mark Lewis/Set Dressing/Properties by Malinda L. Beckham, who also doubles as one of the directors). The design boasts two separate stages, conjoined only by the telephone poles and wires that hover up to the heights of the theater ceiling. It’s a superb construct for a play about two families tied together by a violent act.

What’s on those stages is equally compelling. The set itself is minimal to begin (just couches and a bed), evolving in the second act into full-blown living spaces that evoke a rural hunters homestead, peppered with hides and stuffed deer heads on the wall, and a boy’s bedroom refurbished to suit the nostalgia of a desperate mother and a tenuous son.

However, while the play looks great, it doesn’t sound quite as successful. No doubt Elizabeth Nguyen was going for something when she decided to pipe in whisper sounds overtop of Jake’s breakdown several times during the play. To mimic the voices inside his head? Probably.

For us in the audience though, it sounded like our seatmates were talking to each other. We looked around trying to figure out who to shush…only to realize that it was the play itself.

However, when it comes to the divide between what works and is less successful in this production, it’s the acting and direction that’s the most hit and miss. And it falls generally down familial lines.

When Alan Brincks (Jake) first appears in the opening scene, making a panicked and pained phone call to his brother reporting his abuse of Beth, we sit back and think holy crap, we’re in for a ride. Brincks’ energy and willingness to unleash are all there. Things we need to buy into Jake.

But immediately after that scene and increasingly more so as they play progresses, Brinks loses all the edge, malice and twitchiness he cultivated. His explosions devolve to child-like tantrums. His calm moments play as almost comedy. Stomping on his bed in defiance of his mother’s soup, garners laughs from the audience in a moment that should be chilling rather than amusing.

Directors Beckham and Trevor B. Cone can’t seem to find the place where Brinks can truly set free his anger or energy. As such, we’re left with a character that seems an unlikely serial abuser, thus taking the wind out of the narrative's sails.

Jakes’s mother (Sally Burtenshaw) has similar issues with lack of edge. Where is the mamma bear/woman so broken by men leaving her that she’ll overlook her son’s egregious acts? She claims to have pain, but we see no scars in her performance.

While Jake’s sister (Ellen Dyer) and brother (Michael Morrison) fair far better, it’s Beth and her family that keep us excitedly engaged for the extended run time.

Playing a type of Archie and Edith Bunker dynamic, Beth’s parents Meg (a terrifically sweet but checked out Jeanette Sebesta) and Baylor (a blustery and aggrieved Casey Coale) can be laughed or cringed at depending how hard you look. Both Coale and Sebesta have mastered Shepard’s art of hurting/being hurt within a family that works in spite of itself, and their scenes sing with absurdity.

Beth’s brother Mike is the one we relate to the most and Normal Dillon does a fine job embodying feelings of vexation and revenge. Dillon never overplays his anger, instead letting it sour in his stomach as he tries to do right by his sister and bring some justice to the situation.

But really, it’s Annie Wild’s fully committed and painfully tragic portrayal of the battered and broken Beth that rings our bell. From learning to walk again in the hospital, to never fully recovering her faculties and perpetually confused, Wild is a physical and emotional stab in the heart. Vulnerable yet willful, Wild brings immense grace to Beth even as she behaves in ways that horrify us. In ways that almost all the women in Shepard’s plays behave, addicted to the abuses of love.

This portrayal of women as knowing, complicit masochists has long been a criticism of Shepard’s work. And while you can’t bake this reduction of women out of the script, Beckham and Cone don’t help the issue much by having Beth appear topless in one of Jake’s fits of imagining. Nudity on stage is often brilliantly effective, here it just seems like unnecessarily kicking a gender when it’s already down.

There’s enough of that already in this show. As usual, no one in Shepard’s play gets what they want. Everyone is doomed by their past and punished by their present as they cling to family ties that do little to console. Everyone is down and ready to be kicked.

A Lie of the Mind may not be the best Shepard work, or even the one to experience first. And surely there are some wobbles with this production. But in this case, imperfection seems a reasonable price to pay.

We’ve become so used to the short pithy show that gets us in and out in 90 minutes, that we’ve forgotten how it feels to truly hand over your time to a behemoth of a play. To live in it for more than a minute. There’s a kind of sweet release in that. And here, there are most definitely rewards to be had along the way.

A Lie of the Mind continues through June 8 at  MATCH Theater, (Matchbox 3), 3400 Main. For information, visit matchouston.org. $25

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