Boxcar’s Sam Shepard in repertory: ‘A Lie of the Mind’ tells harsh and funny truth

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Now that Boxcar has opened its final play in their altogether excellent series of Sam Shepard plays in repertory, one can take the opportunity  to reflect on the overall import of these pieces. Boxcar’s staging  of these family comedy/dramas one after another in these superior renditions is a great gift to Shepard fans.

Shepard is a fascinating playwright. As with several of the other great American playwrights of the 20th century, he has taken as his theme the intimate family drama, often presented (like Edward Albee before him) with absurdist elements, and often as metaphor for American culture.

In Shepard’s plays, the psychic damage wrought by dysfunctional families in a dysfunctional culture is turned inside out and made visible through exaggeration. When we meet the characters in Shepard’s families they have been damaged to the point of monstrosity. All veneer of civilized behavior has been stripped away. Brothers are ready to kill one another. Fathers are capable of infanticide. Lovely young woman have had their brains literally bashed out.

In presenting his damaged families, Shepard pulls no punches. He finds his model for extremity in the Greek tragedies.

Why, one is moved to ask, does Shephard find it necessary to put his characters on such grotesque display? This is a long way from Eugene O’Neil‘s genteel Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example. In that play, a father does indeed commit the moral equivalent of child murder when he refuses, out of miserliness, to provide necessary medical care for his youngest son. But he doesn’t actually stick in the knife.

Shepard was writing these plays in the 1970s when half the country was screaming that our government was guilty of genocide and the so-called “silent majority” was in profound denial, defending a presidential administration that was almost unbelievably corrupt. Shepard wanted to strip away the layers of denial of just how sick society and families were: nothing would be wrapped in gauze or seen through a glass darkly. Elders at that time were indeed murdering their children, sending them to kill and die in Viet Nam. In the face of My Lai, Shepard was not prepared to sugar coat anything and he didn’t.

He set out to rub our faces in the disgusting facts. Politics is not mentioned overtly in the plays, but Shepard gives us hints. The violence of two murderous brothers is rooted in the traditions of America’s True West. In Fool for Love, issues of class are not just beneath the surface, but protruding like mountain ranges. In Buried Child, the Americana icon of Norman Rockwell is specifically invoked.

The company of Sam Shepard's "Lie of the Mind" at Boxcar Theatre—part of Sam Shepard in repertory. Photo Credit: Boxcar Theatre.

With Lie of the Mind, all of these themes are in evidence. In  her program note, Director Susannah Martin remarks (half jokingly) that “this play is the one in which Shepard took every idea, image or theme that he was ever interested in and threw them in a blender.” The play is an assault on our sensibilities, at times disgusting (literally forcing audience members to look away), at other times so ridiculously beyond the pale that one cannot help but guffaw.

The play opens with Frankie on the telephone with his brother Jake, who is confessing to beating his wife to death. It is not certain whether this really happened, as Jake is so drunk that he is incoherent. When Jake returns home, confused and withdrawn, Frankie sets out to find out if Beth is alive or dead. She’s alive, but has been severely brain damaged. The scenes of the play follow the fortunes of the two families (Jake’s and Beth’s) and gradually reveal how they have reached their present horrible conditions.

It doesn’t sound like material for comedy, but it is howlingly funny as well as dramatically terrifying. This is one hell of a night at the theatre!

The excellent cast features Josh Schell as Frankie, Joe Estlack as Jake and a particularly outstanding performance by Megan Trout as the brain damaged Beth. The rest of the cast is equally outstanding, especially Don Wood as Baylor, a nightmare of a patriarch. Mr. Wood manages to import the full horror of the man, while still hitting every note of black humor that Shepherd demands.

This excellent production is a fittingly successful conclusion of the four plays of the Sam Shepard In Repertory project at Boxcar Theatre.

All four plays (True West, Buried Child, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind) continue in repertory through April 26. For further information, click here.

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“A Lie Of The Mind” by Sam Shepard, produced by Boxcar Theatre Company. Director: Susannah Martin. Assistant Director: Lynda Bachman. Set: Steve Decker. Lighting: Lucas Krech. Costumes: Christine Crook. Sound Design: Teddy Hulsker. 

Frankie: Josh Schell. Jake: Joe Estlack. Beth: Megan Trout. Mike: Tim Redmond. Lorraine: Katja Rivera. Sally: Marissa Keltie. Baylor: Don Wood. Meg: Carolyn Doyle.

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