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Head On

An Act of Violence Sets Two Families On a Collision Course

Cliff Williams III cradles Gina Alvarado

By John Barry | Posted 2/25/2009

When the curtain goes up in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, the lights don't turn on. The audience finds itself plunged into darkness. A phone rings and a voice shouts out from stage left. Then there's the voice of Jake, in a panic attack, shouting into a payphone that he's just killed his wife Beth in a jealous rage. The voice is miked from the middle of the audience. When the lights go up, we realize that the character is standing behind a scrim backstage.

Lie is a story about dislocation, and the Rep Stage's excellent production, directed by Xerxes Mehta, uses sound, light, and images to take that dislocation to an operatic level. But it also keeps its feet on the ground. What might sound like high modernism somehow feels right at home--whatever that may mean--in the American West.

So Jake hasn't actually killed his wife. He has mauled her, because, as an actress in a local theater, she seemed to be getting too much into her romantic lead. Jake (Tim Getman) is back in his motel, legs splayed, taking up space. His satellite/brother Frankie (Timothy Pabon) is trying to calm him down and, at the same time, trying to avoid becoming the object of Jake's pathological paranoia. Meanwhile, Jake's mother Lorraine (Valerie Leonard)--a beautifully rendered larger than life tribute to Texas motherhood--comes in and tries to whip him back into shape.

The play's progress isn't defined by its plot so much as it is by divisions. On stage right, while Jake is trying to come to terms with what he's done, we are introduced to Jake's wife, the savagely beaten Beth (Gina Alvarado). Her brother Mike (Cliff Williams III) vows revenge. Her father, Baylor (Dan Manning), appears more interested in getting back to Montana in time for the hunting season. And her mother Meg (Maureen Kerrigan) is trying to keep the peace.

The play heads toward the inevitable collision between the two families. But what fascinates is the length to which the characters in Shepard's play go to develop the battle lines and act out revenge fantasies. This large, quasi-family gets splayed across the stage, a homegrown American militia stuck in a terra incognita, driven by vague desires and looking for a fight.

Thanks to lighting and stage design, the production is bathed in subtly rendered surrealism. As they move across the largely flat horizon of Elena Zlotescu's set, these characters are transformed by the lighting into iconic figures. As they move into their houses, under the spotlight, they are squirming in the headlights. In one striking moment, Jake, while holding his dead father's ashes, seems to transform under the fading lights into a skeleton.

The tie that binds in Shepard's landscape is paranoia and the desire for revenge. But this production never loses sight of the dark humor at the heart of the Shepard's characters themselves. They seem to be glued together by lies: faded self-images, nonextant heroes, post-traumatic distortions, and imagined enemies. Even more vaguely and heartbreakingly, in each character there's a blind faith that, somewhere, there was a spark of genuine love in the mix. Thanks to excellent acting, this production is as much about the transformation of individual characters as it is about the larger themes of American dysfunction.

This Rep Stage cast makes these characters memorable as individuals, and not just as archetypes. Getman switches Jake from being a monster to a whimpering child. As he did in last year's Heart of America, he creates a danger zone with his physical presence. Pabon, the in-your-face Thom Pain in Rep Stage's 2007 production, gives a lower-key performance as the somewhat passive-aggressive brother Frankie. Alvarado subtly negotiates her character's transformation from brain-damaged victim to a controlling, predatory young woman. Manning, meanwhile, delivers a very funny performance as a figure who is one part gun-totin', flag-waving tyrant and one part petty, whining brat.

Frequently, as any ex-drama student knows, Shepard productions lose control of the archetypes that stomp across his landscapes. Under Mehta's focused direction, Rep Stage ratchets up the humor and lets the pathos slowly seep in. This production never loses touch with the fact that these are all-American characters who, while tongue-tied and wrapped up in their own lies, are still driven by a naïve, restless faith in the truth, wherever it may be hidden.

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