San Francisco’s Magic Theatre has had a long history with Sam Shepard. In 1971, the theatre staged its first Shepard play, La Turista. Starting in 1975, Shepard was playwright in residence for ten years at the Magic, where he premiered many of his seminal plays, including Buried Child, True West and Fool for Love.
Kicking off with Shepard’s 70th birthday in 2013, the Magic has been celebrating his work with a five-year “Sheparding America” project that started with a revival of Buried Child helmed by Magic artistic director Loretta Greco. Now Greco is teaming up with a couple of the same actors (James Wagner, Elaina Garrity) to take on another Shepard classic.
Although it dates from around the time of the end of his residency, A Lie of the Mind has never played the Magic until now. It's a very strange play about very strange people from two very different but similarly messed-up families, united by marriage and violence.
The story starts shortly after a husband beats his wife so severely that he thinks he’s killed her. We see the young wife. Beth, awaken in a hospital, brain-damaged and speaking partly in gibberish. Disturbingly, the incident is played for humor in a farcical conversation that follows between the husband, Jake, and his brother Frankie. Jake’s paranoid rant about how he could tell Beth, an actress, was cheating on him could feel menacing; he’s already demonstrated how dangerous he can be. But Sean San Jose’s twitchy Jake is like a young boy having a tantrum. Frankie, the concerned brother played by Juan Amador, tries to find out exactly what happened, but the the goofy faces Amador keeps making turn the conversation into a grim Abbott and Costello routine.
Jessi Campbell’s Beth is terribly affecting in her zoned-out distress, furiously frustrated and terrified for reasons she can’t articulate. Jake, too, becomes feverishly delirious and borderline amnesiac, retreating to his childhood bed where his mother is only too happy to take care of him. In a parallel move, Beth goes back to recuperate with her parents in Montana. The rest of the play moves back and forth between these two families caring for their broken children, sometimes showing both houses at once on opposite sides of Robert Brill’s simple but versatile set of a bare wooden floor tilted toward the audience.
But the parallels don’t end there. Everyone in the play is deranged and miserable—except Jake’s sister Sally, who’s just exasperated as played by Garrity. Catherine Castellanos as Lorraine, Jake’s mother, is pathologically self-absorbed in her brusque dismissal of any truths about her family that don’t fit her own embittered narrative. She babies her returned son even as she tries to shoo her daughter away as an interloper. Ultimately you can see that Jake’s raving paranoia runs in the family.
Just as Beth dwells in a state of maddening vagueness, her mother, Meg (pleasantly smiling Julia McNeal), is quietly out to lunch, not even able to remember whether it was herself or her mother who was hospitalized for a long time. Her husband, Baylor (a curmudgeonly Robert Parsons), is always either off hunting or sitting around kvetching about all the freeloaders and crazy women in his house. Beth’s brother Mike (Wagner) at first seems simply concerned and slightly exasperated, but his sense of aggrievement and a need to protect the family grow to monstrous proportions. Frankie, meanwhile, becomes increasingly delirious due to an untreated, festering wound. It’s as if the damage that Jake inflicted on both Beth and himself at the start of the play is hardly any deeper than the creeping madness infecting both households.
Although this craziness builds effectively in Greco’s production, the play seems even longer than its almost three-hour running time. An account of the death of Jake’s father late in the play feels interminable, in part because of Garrity’s affectless delivery and in part because we haven’t been given any reason to care about the long-gone patriarch. Sure, he still looms large in Jake’s mind, but that’s such a scrambled organ that Jake’s obsessions don’t bear much examination unless you’re in the psychiatric profession.
Everyone’s so childishly selfish and lacking in empathy that it’s hard to have much investment in them. As Lorraine says of her dead husband, “He was one a’ them hopeless men. Nothin’ you can do about the hopeless.”
A Lie of the Mind runs through February 22, 2015 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.