Everyone is waiting for something, whether it’s to grow up, to die or to love, in “A Lie of the Mind,” written by Sam Shepard and directed by Chair and Professor of Theatre Elizabeth Carlin-Metz, which opened in Harbach Theatre on Wednesday. All the world’s a stage in this natural and somehow lucid glimpse into the lives of two families torn apart by madness and the slow upwelling of repressed emotions. Set against a bleak and forbidding backdrop of winter-locked Montana, the play immediately grabs the audience, overwhelms them and then abandons them on the frozen range with nothing but the madness of the characters and the brilliance of the theatrical performances to latch onto.
The play centers around the aftermath of the violent beating of Beth (freshman Mya Kahler) by her husband Jake (Joey Firman, ’10) and how their two families deal with Beth’s brain damage and Jake’s rapid fall into insanity. We learn early in the play that Jake lashed out against Beth because of his paranoia that she was having an affair, triggered when she began acting in a play. Jake’s extreme mistrust of Beth, because in his mind she wants to and is becoming someone else, leads to the brutal violence directed against her.
As the play progresses it is intimated to us that while Jake is probably schizophrenic, a trait likely inherited from his father, a former Air Force pilot, he is also plagued by a violent nature. We are also shown that this is only the surface, though, as revelations about the complete and utter dysfunction of his family become revealed.
Jake is not the only one going insane in his family, though he may be the only one with a clinical diagnosis; his mother, Lorraine (junior Nellie Ognacevic) is on the brink of madness herself, being eaten away from within by her own repressed feelings towards her dead husband and her abiding sense of betrayal. Caught between these two poles is Jake’s sister, Sally (junior Kathleen Donoghue), and she is not immune to the ergot spread by her closest relatives; Sally is haunted by an event in the distant past that she saw as murder.
On the other hemisphere of the narrative, Beth’s Montana farming family struggles to cope with the sudden change in their stultified lives. Her father, Baylor (senior Jimmy Thornton) struggles to even comprehend what brain damage, or the fact that his daughter was married, means. Baylor’s wife, Meg (sophomore Kate LaRose) fights to communicate in anything other than the trite aphorisms of an old woman used to saying the same thing for years on end. Beth’s brother Mike (senior Keegan Siebken) appoints himself as her protector, a shield against her former life. The shield remains largely unbroken until Jake’s brother, Frankie (junior Chris Bakka) comes to Montana, ostensibly to apologize for his brother’s actions.
While the setup sounds ripe for melodrama, it never strays too far from a heady mix of dramatic narrative and human foibles. Although the themes of the play are certainly biblical, there is an incredible awareness at all times that tragedy can be humorous and comedy painful. The production maintains a palpable tension in tandem with a deeply personal treatment of the characters, acknowledging their failures, incompetencies, sins and digressions alongside their innate humanness. Jake kneels and smears his face with ash, a biblical Job lost to madness. Moments before, the theatre had erupted in laughter when Frankie is shot by Mike in a hunting accident.
The complex and multilayered narrative and characters are handily carried by an exceptional cast; Ognacevic tears into her role as Lorraine with all the vim and insanity that she brought to her other role as a crazed housewife in “Medea,” but she also expertly guides the character through subtle and believable emotional and mental changes. Siebken as Mike fills the stage with rage and desperation until his character eventually breaks from them.
Although all of the actors clearly thrived in their roles under the careful direction of Carlin-Metz, in the end Bakka as Frankie and Thornton as Baylor left the most lasting impression. As a simultaneously deeply humorous and completely familiar pair of dramatic characters, they kept the production consistently grounded and prevented it from flying off into a netherworld of existential questions.
As the climax of the play approaches, the audience becomes steadily more and more dependent upon the strengths of the actors. The insanity of each character becomes progressively more pronounced as anchors in space are steadily removed. The set is an open stage filled with boxes and suitcases piled around a bed, a chair and an old couch. The couch, bed and chair serve as the homes of each of the two families. When Beth says, “This room was where we were,” we know that she is both speaking about her childhood and the space of her physical being. By the end one house has burned down, but the other remains, and the stage is essentially the same.
The production is a huge success for both the cast and for director Carlin-Metz.
“I thought it was great. I loved the emotion. I loved the drama,” freshman Portia Calhoun said. The almost instantaneous standing ovation and the curtain call bore this out.
Ultimately, redemption can be found within a morass of domestic violence, alcoholism, parricide, hate and lovelessness. The play, though, does not leave the viewer with any real answers. It is unclear who is really crazy and who is not. We are left with uncomfortable questions about what is truly good or truly bad, and what it really means to be sane. When the lights finally go down, every fundamental question about the human condition remains as it was at the beginning, only tempered with hope for redemption. The failure to provide answers is no fault of the cast or the direction, rather, the play itself is a trick, a lie of the mind.
“A Lie of the Mind” will be showing daily at 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday, Feb. 23 to Saturday, Feb. 26 in Harbach Theatre. Admission is free for Knox students.