Pieces of a Mind

03/05/2010 1:30 PM |

The vaulted set in the New Group's revival of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, at the Acorn Theater through March 21, is indicative of the kind of mental compartmentalization that pervades both the script and the production. The stage rises up in the background to form a high wall of cabinets, drawers, curios, chiffoniers, doors, dressers, and other implements of storage—with the odd lamp and model airplane thrown in for color. In his Times review Ben Brantley compares the set to a "suffocatingly cluttered" attic of the mind where one stores "all those pictures, toys and sticks of furniture whose personal significance is sometimes a mystery." A closer inspection of this busy backdrop (by Derek McLane) reveals that it is not so much about the objects themselves but the things/memories these objects can hold, the storage space inside the objects, and more importantly how putting something in a drawer and then closing it, will keep others out and the thing inside.

And so it is with the characters in A Lie of The Mind, whose individual paranoia, shortcomings, psychoses, misgivings, and fears are all hidden away from everyone but themselves and the audience. Director Ethan Hawke kept a hands-off approach, telling the Times, rather intuitively, that "things like a great production are out of your control." Indeed, the production unfolds like an 8-person barbershop rendition of an old favorite. Each actor is tasked with a certain octave in the song, and it is only if they plug their ears, and focus on hitting their own pitch, that harmony exists and a synchronized ensemble emerges—a scary and backwards space where no one listens to anybody else, but everyone has something to say. The production is paralyzing in its emotional landscape, but feels at times like too much to take in one sitting, though it is is a sitting that the audience won't soon forget.

The pace of the production is well set, though the play seems at times a little long—Hawke's version hits three hours, despite dropping almost a full hour from the original Shepard-directed production—and serves to assuage some of the discomfort felt by bearing witness to the characters' alienation and confusion. The curtain lifts on a phone call in which we learn that Jake (played by a wild-eyed Allesandro Nivola) has beaten his wife Beth (played by the ever impressive Marin Ireland) to within an inch of her life, and although we are privvy to the info that she lives, he thinks her dead, or wants to believe it. Jake is unsure of where he is, though he knows he is heading to his brother Frankie's house, a safe haven, furthering the idea that nothing exists outside of known comfort zones for the characters in Mind.

Almost simultaneously the lights reveal Beth in the hospital, speaking gibberish, her exasperated and frantic brother Mike (stage veteran Frank Whaley) by her side. Her brain-damaged state is frightening in its intensity, and Ireland is amazing, reverting to childlike observations that ironically act as the only clear voice of reason in the otherwise psychotic script. Jake and Beth look across the miles and hours separating them to almost see each other, but their realities couldn't be more different. The players handle their troubled and disturbed characters well—Nivola lets his eyes do most of the talking for Jake, revealing schizophrenic characteristics and matricidal tendencies—which is a great feat given that they all only seem to be hearing their own voices. Maggie Siff (of Mad Men fame) is exceptional as Sally, Jake's directionless yet compassionate sister, and her chilling monologue recounting their father's death is deliciously paranoid yet sad.

Shepard's script pushes the limits of dark irony and is rife with all sorts of violence, none of which ever actually occurs on stage, another partitioning that creates doubt in the viewers' and actors' minds. Jake's brother Frankie (played by the helpless Josh Hamilton) decides he needs to know if Jake has actually killed Beth. After he is "accidentally" shot by Beth's father Baylor (played by a grisly, chauvinistic Keith Carradine), Frankie becomes Beth's patient/prisoner while the wound in his leg worsens. Just as we never see Jake attack Beth, when Frankie is shot it's the aftermath the audience reacts to. Much like the way actors speak but do not listen to each other (Frankie screams for a doctor as Baylor steals the blanket from him because his feet are cold), the viewers try to get a handle on the causes of these terrifyingly nuanced scenarios but never can.

With all the confusion in the production, one of the only points of cohesion and clarity here is the live music performed and composed by Gaines, a brother art duo who repurpose old farming and household equipment (brooms as guitars, wash tubs as amplifiers) to give them voice and music. Shepard's original 1985 production featured The Red Clay Ramblers, a little-known bluegrass outfit from North Carolina, doing the interludes that are an integral part of the play, a melodic juxtaposition from the dissonant voices on the stage. Gaines is haunting in their performance of their original hymnal, acapella chants, with the instruments acting like more sad voices in the chorus.

Toward the middle of the show, Jake, wearing his dead father's dog tags and an old army issue jacket, boxers, and jack boots and an American flag as a cape, holds the old man's ashes in his hand, blowing on them and sending them skyward in a pillar of light as Gaines croons out a lament, and the audience is left with a spectacularly visceral image of a troubled man and his dark past. It offers way of looking at this whole production: the piece is best taken as a set of separate images, rather than the collage suggested by the set design, with each piece seen as a whole and not a part of something larger. As viewers begin to assemble the different pictures afterward, it's hard to tell where the truth begins and lies end.

(photo credit: Monique Carboni)