Derek McLane’s set for the New Group’s corrosive revival of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” is both abstract and atmospherically specific. It assembles several flea markets’ worth of shoddy furniture, bric-a-brac and busted mementos, piled high around the walls and across the ceiling over the characters’ heads. This dark, tangled enclosure has an airlessness that finds no relief in the large window through which a blizzard outside, a lonely highway or a distant fire are indicated. And in the searing performances of director Ethan Hawke’s first-rate cast, there’s a matching sense of being embedded deep in the violent, hallucinatory world of a play that remains ferociously original 25 years after its premiere.
The set provides physical evidence of the inescapable insidiousness of family — the oppressive weight of the past that bears down on the present and future. These people are sons doomed to become their hated fathers; rivalrous siblings riven into good and bad selves; helpless, hopeless men who leave or die or just shut down; and blame-hurling women, addicted to victimhood yet unable to relinquish their belief in the tenuous salvation of love. The understanding that love is possibly the sole truth in the cluttered landscape of the mind is more pathological than consolatory.
Hawke has given his cast the freedom and trust perhaps only another actor would be willing to give. Their characterizations feel like the result of intense exploration and analysis, biting into the marrow of meaning in Shepard’s bracing language, but contemplating every word of gnarled lyricism and sardonic realism with a focus that serves the text, not the actor.
The play runs one act and more than an hour shorter than in its 1985 Off Broadway premiere, and that distillation does not detract from the sprawling, messy majesty of the work. Shepard’s production notes are specific about the importance of music, and the original famously used North Carolina bluegrass group the Red Clay Ramblers. Hawke effectively underlays the entire play with a dense sonic foundation; sibling duo Gaines supplies vocals, music and sound effects on instruments created out of found objects from a small foley department on the side of the stage.
In the unsettling opening, Jake (Alessandro Nivola) stammers out an anguished confesssion to his brother Frankie (Josh Hamilton) that his latest assault on his wife, Beth (Marin Ireland), has left her dead. “I never even seen it comin’,” he says of his own act of violence. Jake reveals his jealous suspicions that Beth’s romantic role in a theater production had usurped the love in their rocky marriage. Beth, in fact, is not dead but brain-damaged from the savage beating, struggling to recognize herself or her brother Mike (Frank Whaley) as he tries to convince her she’s still alive.
These initial scenes plant a mild concern that Hawke’s handle on the drama might lean toward the overwrought, starting out at an intensity that can’t possibly be sustained. But that proves unfounded the minute Laurie Metcalf and Keith Carradine mosey on up as Beth’s Montana rancher parents, Meg and Baylor.
The actors bring a scratchy, weathered history to the relationship between an irascible patriarch, who insists on being both pampered and left alone to hunt and brood, and a mollifying woman who just wants everyone to act nice. “Keep the language outdoors,” or “Please don’t yell in the house,” Meg clucks, regardless of the brink-of-madness mayhem unfolding around her. As hilarious as they are sad, Metcalf and Carradine slot right into the grotesque groove of Shepard’s acid-drenched comedy, marking the first of many expertly modulated shifts in tone.
Equally on-target on the opposite parental side is Jake’s widowed mother, Lorraine, all deadened nerve ends and blunt judgments in Karen Young’s flagrantly unsympathetic caricature. “Woman who lives with a man like that deserves to be killed,” she says of her preferably forgotten daughter-in-law in a line that still draws shocked gasps from the audience.
Lorraine’s runaway drunkard husband might be dead, but the former Air Force pilot lingers like a toxin, and not just when Jake gently blows a cloud of his ashes into the air. Lorraine still squirms over her inability to exorcize him from their lives, while her daughter Sally (Maggie Siff, in a part originated by Young) is tormented by the harrowing memory of his death and Jake’s role in it.
It’s classic Shepard that, as twisted or torn as they may be, the ties still bind. And nowhere do they bind more unbreakably than between Jake and Beth. Even when they’re in different states, Jake remains transfixed by sightings of her across the vast mental landscape of the stage. “I’m gonna die without her,” he whimpers. And in her delirious ravings, when she’s unsure if she’s dead or alive, Beth still reaffirms her connection to him: “Heez in me. You gan stop him in me. Nobody gan stop him in me.”
One could nitpick that Siff is perhaps a shade too muted and Whaley steps an inch too far into hysteria, but this is a stellar ensemble down the line. However, it’s Ireland’s work that leaves the most penetrating impression, her slurred thoughts seeming to gurgle up from the depths of some murky pond. She’s shattering as she inarticulately defends her right to love Jake — or Frankie, the softer, sweeter “woman-man” she tries to believe is her husband after Baylor mistakes him for a deer and shoots him.
Delivered by Ireland with chilling matter-of-factness, Beth’s assessment of her father at the close of act one is a stunning nugget of truth out of childlike simplicity: “He’s given up love. Love is dead for him. My mother is dead for him. Things live for him to be killed. Only death counts for him. Nothing else.”
That the women in Shepard’s plays appear both cognizant and forgiving of men’s most irredeemable failings has long been a bone of contention with his work. But Hawke’s haunting production — lit with pinpoint detail by Jeff Croiter — makes it plain no one is let off the hook. And the bizarre spectacle of Baylor painstakingly and proudly folding the U.S. flag amid the pathetic shards of his family’s sanity is a barbed joke that arguably cuts deeper in the country’s current state than when the play was written.