A Lie of the Mind

by Sam Shepard
Directed by Brian Mertes
Featuring Britt Faulkner, Benjamin Grills, Timothy Crowe, Anne Scurria
Trinity Rep Dowling Theater
May 29, 2014 – June 29, 2014
theatre web site

[This is the first of five off campus reviews generated while I was a 2014 O’Neill  National Critics Institute Fellow. Ruminations generated during our two weeks as NCI Fellows of O’Neill plays and musicals in development will not be published, but reviews of productions attended in other Connecticut areas are fair game.]

(L-R) Rebecca Gibel and Benjamin Grills. Image by xxx.
(L-R) Rebecca Gibel and Benjamin Grills. Image by Mark Turek.

Sam Shepard’s 1985 physically, emotionally and structurally fragmented family drama A Lie of the Mind ended its run at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island on June 29th.  Frank Rich referred to the original 1985 production of this story of a distressed marital relationship and the family stories of the warring spouses as “Shepard’s most romantic play.” While fragments of the romance in Shepard’s characters and script are in evidence in the Trinity Rep production, the directorial hand and design make it a rock-and-roll experience for two acts and a slightly more conventional family drama in the final act. The pieces do not congeal, making for a disjointed experience.

This story is of two families and their connective tissue through the marriage marred by violence between Beth (Britt Faulkner) and Jake (Benjamin Grills).  Parents in the two families are played by Trinity Rep stalwarts – leading to sometimes over-generous applause in subtle moments in the story – Timothy Crowe as Beth’s ice-fishing and deer-hunting dad Baylor, and Anne Scurria as Beth’s indulgent and ultimately strong mother Meg.  The families are rounded out by Beth’s brother Mike (Billy Finn) and Jake’s brother Frankie (Charlie Thurston) and sister Sally (Rebecca Gibel). No one dies but some characters are psychically and physically wounded, while others heal. And we, the audience, are simply pummeled by play’s end.

Director Brian Mertes and costume designer Cait O’Connor  have worked together before — on a dystopian post-apocalyptic wild community dirty basement blood spattered production of Massacre (Sing to Your Children) at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City several seasons ago. That play, which I happened to see and appreciate, worked well with fearful appearances and villains in the corners and scavenging characters surviving in an abandoned basement dressed in fragments and shower curtains. The pieces matched the material, and I applauded. Many of those same directorial and design instincts appear to have been applied by director and costumer to Shepard’s story of spousal abuse and the families to which the spouses return. And this is an uneasy pairing.

Director Mertes has combined Brechtian direct address and gentle audience interaction with shards of set pieces the actors actively assemble. Audience member detective work and story assembly is to be expected, and Shepard has written his story this way – we are intended to doubt the veracity of the stories told us by most of the characters in this adventure for most of the three hours in this telling. Spousal abuse and abandonment shouted at us while we attempt to stitch together the family histories, however, almost destroys the deft storytelling design revealed in many scenes in the third act.

Eugene Lee has crafted an ingenious set of 52 stacked box fans that are occasionally ignited in a cluster, setting up a marvelous whoosh without a clear reason for doing so – could they be representing propellers evoking the air force dad whose story is a bit of mystery that the characters unpack for the rest of the evening? Is the stage painted to look like gray poured concrete intended to place us in a hangar? Barbed wire bisects the audience and performance space high above —  twin strands that ultimately twine around one of two upstage pillars that may be permanent fixtures of this playing space. Pieces of furniture and concrete blocks assembled by our actors. It’s a constructed world.

Original music crafted and performed by Phillip Roebuck is a true and honest highlight, suggesting honest through lines that are not ultimately, achieved by the rest of the production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 1, 2014)

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