In many regards, A Lie of the Mind, now at Lord Leebrick, is classic mid-career Sam Shepard; arid, patchy, proletarian and grotesque, the play telegraphs a confessional tone continually slashed and clotted by several strata of male violence, be it implied and symbolic or actual as a heart attack. Like Cormac McCarthy, Shepard is an elegist of the subdivided open range, of the paranoia and brutality that result from killing off the buffalo and paving over the places they once roamed. Ideals and dreams loom large in this dramatic universe — the ideal of love, the American dream — but the idyllic is constantly being choked out by knots in the flow of communication. Communication, or miscommunication, is ever the wrench in the system for Shepard, the gremlin in the works.
The play opens in darkness, as Jake (Kato Buss), on the phone to his brother Frankie (Jacob King), admits to mindlessly beating his wife Beth (Mary Buss), perhaps to death. As they retreat into the arms of their respective families — Jake to his childhood home and wizened, tough-as-nails mother Lorraine (Rebecca Nachison) and sister Sally (Michelle Nordella), Beth to her parents Baylor (Achilles Massahos) and Meg (Gloria Lagalo) and hothead brother Mike (Mike Hawkins) — the roots of dysfunction are increasingly flayed open.
Playing psychological empath, Shepard complicates any quick-and-easy assignments of victimization; by revealing the demons inhabiting each character, he pushes the envelope beyond good and evil, seeking deeper, more insidious causes of the hurt we inflict on those we most love. If everyone, in the end, is a victim, is no one a victim? Judge not, Shepard seems to say, but rather look and listen: They know not what they do in the name of their silent desperation, and the circle — of violence, of resentment, of mistrust — goes unbroken.
The lie that slinks and slithers its way through A Lie of the Mind is as unavoidable as it is self-perpetuating. That lie might just be language itself — the way words become insufficient in the face of want and need, ultimately warping and undermining exactly what they’re intended to express. For Shepard, the universal solvent of violence seeps into every utterance, creating a language that threatens, with every syllable, to dissolve into despair. The specter of the past — as the Oedipal ghost of Jake and Sally’s dead father, as love lost and lost opportunities mourned — haunts, and in haunting, paralyzes, every character but one: Beth, whose traumatic head injury seems, through a kind of erasure, to open her up to existential reckonings devoid of any emotional immediacy. What is love? she asks, and Who am I? Why do I hurt so?
A Lie of the Mind is lesser Shepard, nowhere near in scope and emotional punch to his 1979 Pulitzer-winner Buried Child, nor can it hold a candle to True West, another inferno of sibling rivalry and filial detach. But, really, I’d take minor Shepard over major Ibsen any day, and the greatest virtue of A Lie is also the reason Leebrick’s production is one of the finest works to hit local stages in the past five years: This is an actor’s wet dream, full of smoldering scenes and scathing dialogue, and the cast ties into it like a theater afire.
In the leads, Kato and Mary Buss are stupendous, seizing upon their broken characters and filling them with scorched soul; their performances are mesmerizing, emotionally seismic but subtly sophisticated. And the amazing thing is, the rest of the cast keeps right up: Nachison is a bristling storm of malign motherhood; veterans Massahos and Lagalo provide a large share of the play’s humor and emotional anchorage; Hawkins is spot-on as Beth’s pissed-off pistolwhip of a brother; and Nordella, newly returned to the stage, is a wonder as Jake’s younger sister, besieged on all sides by the psychosexual ooze of ancestral obsession.
These players, each taking her superb spin across the boards, turn an OK play by a great playwright into an object lesson in aces-up acting. Get thee to the Leebrick.
A Lie of the Mind plays through June 3 at Lord Leebrick Theatre; lordleebrick.com 465-1506.