The thing about Sam Shepard is, he can’t create a story to save his life. When you shout “Plot!” at Sam Shepard, he hears “Graveyard!” He’s much more interested in situation, and since situation is inherently static –- is pretty much a pot, not a plot –- the success of a situationwright (as opposed to a playwright) is how well he or she brings that pot to boil, and what the characters do while they’re getting cooked. Like Beckett, it’s impossible to ever tip the pot over and walk away; like Pinter, the pot is just a device to see how everybody reacts when things heat up. But with Shepard, the pot is always made up of something symbolic, like the idea of manhood or the idea of America, and these are what everybody in a Shepard play winds up bouncing against or embracing when everything starts bubbling and steaming. They fight the pot or grab the pot, and they all get burned. When the pot is bigger than everybody else, you get Buried Child, which is all symbol and no substance (or as Christopher Durang would say, all sty and no eye). But when the pot is smaller than the people, and you get to see the characters cooking their own goose, that's when you get something as perfectly-balanced as The New Group’s production of A Lie Of The Mind.
Written in '85, after Shepard collaborator and friend Joseph Chaykin had a stroke that resulted in severe aphasia, the play features a central character who has been beaten up so badly that she's brain damaged, and her speech patterns (from all accounts) mirror those of Chaykin after his recovery. As for the rest of the characters, it’s got all the usual Shepard trappings (One brother who’s angry and violent? Check. One brother who’s a bit of a pussy? Check. One son who will never please his father? Check. One father from hell? Check and double check.) as well as the Ineffectual Mom, the Outsider Female (the one with aphasia), and the Insider Female, who actually gets to deliver the Big Revelation Monologue that usually goes to one of the brothers.
Out of this overly-schematic cat’s cradle of echoes and connections, director Ethan Hawke has created something a lot less self-indulgent than any other Shepard production I’ve ever seen, for which he deserves a lot of credit. As does the cast. Laurie Metcalfe and Keith Carradine give the kind of performances which, if this was a film, would earn them both shoo-in Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. Marin Ireland keeps you hanging on her every word as their damaged-in-so-many-ways daughter. Alessandro Nivola makes the Angry Brother incredibly precise and incredibly dangerous. Josh Hamilton mines the Weak Brother for comic and pathetic gold. Frank Whaley inhabits the thankless part of Thankless Son without making the guy annoying (no small feat). And Maggie Siff keeps you hanging on her every word by portraying a woman whose head is too fast for her tongue; she’s always breaking off in mid-syll --mid-sentence because what she just said isn’t quite true –- and she wants to tell the truth –- which makes her the damaged-in-a-different-way sister-under-the-skin to Marin Ireland. Only Karen Young's Lorraine is a disappointment; you'd think the only other parent on stage would rise to the level of Metcalfe and Carradine, but no -- while everyone else lets you know just where and why the ice broke under their feet, Young skates through her part without a stumble, and in a way reminds you of what a train wreck this play would be in the hands of lesser actors. Or a lesser director.
Kudos also to set designer Derek McLane and the brothers Gaines for their original music. The stage at the Acorn looks like a cross between the contents of a wagon train and one of Charles Foster Kane’s storage spaces, with chairs and tables and knick-knacks (and guns) hanging everywhere. And the score by Shelby and Latham Gaines creates its own landscape by using pieces of the set to create the kind of Bernard Hermann underscoring that literally stands as a completely different character on stage.
The afternoon I saw it, my friend Lisa and I skewed the average age to under 70 just by walking in the door. The oldster in front of me gave me a nasty glare over her shoulder the first time I laughed, so I kept the howling to a minimum out of respect for her hearing aid. And a couple of other oldsters were talking afterwards about how Shepard really wants to be O’Neill, except that he lacks O’Neill’s sense of tragedy. Which is like saying Gene Kelly wanted to be Fred Astaire, except that he lacked a closet full of tuxedos. So I kept my thoughts to myself, out of respect to their preference for booze-soaked Irish blather salted with over-repeated refrains like “Damn pipe dreams!” and “It’s only a summer cold.”
So don’t go expecting to see O’Neill. And actually? Don’t even go expecting to see Shepard. Go to this one expecting to see a great production of an ambitious play that doesn’t get done a lot because it’s not easy to do right. And do it quick; it closes on March 20th.