Moth to the Flame

Love is devastation, destruction, disease. Love—real love—destroys one's life, tears human beings apart, and makes small differences in relationships seem irrevocable. Love, especially male love, is a death wish: it is the trapeze artist's desire to fall, the bullfighter's secret wish to be gored, the fighter pilot's dream of a glorious crash. One asks: Who was the greater lover, Prometheus or the vulture? But a great love, a true lover, is both. Love is the fire that chars the heart, excoriates it, even as it illuminates what is left of the body's ash for a brief instant. When one is in love, every bed is a bed of nails.

Such are the meditations provoked by Sam Shepard's unforgivingly dark drama A Lie of the Mind, now playing as part of the Michael Chekhov Theater Company's Sam Shepard Festival, an ambitious project in which the company plans to produce all 45 of Shepard's plays between now and December 2007. While some of Shepard's plays may be spunkier, more spontaneous, or more surreal, A Lie, which took the 1986 Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, is certainly the most brutal, bleak, and uncanny work in Shepard's oeuvre—and that's saying a lot.

Jake, a bad boy with tattoos and cowboy boots, wakes up from a stupor in Nowhere, Calif., to remember that he beat Beth, his wife, to a bloody pulp. Jake's brother, Frankie, visits Beth's parents' house in Montana to see if she is dead or alive. Meanwhile, Jake, in the midst of a nervous breakdown (as much from guilt over the incident with Beth as from trauma over killing his father many years ago), moves back in with his mother, who still requires someone to baby.

Beth's father, Baylor, goes out hunting for deer but accidentally shoots Frankie in the leg. Frankie is then trapped by a blizzard in the house of in-laws who hate him—all except Beth, that is, who falls in love with him as she slowly recovers from her brain injury. Mike, Beth's older and overprotective brother, goes on a vigilante rampage when he finds Jake has come back for her. Jake is still impossibly in love with Beth and cannot bear to repeat the past, whether with her or with his father, although he must, and does. In the end, the characters must choose to either annihilate their pasts wholesale or stagger on in their own foolish footsteps forever.

The acting is more than sufficient all around, with Thomas Francis Murphy as Baylor giving a standout performance. He absolutely nails the jingoistic Montana backwoodsman who both hates and is co-dependent on his wife—down to his twitching caterpillar eyebrows and the slow, smoky warble of his voice. You are entirely convinced when he declares, "Hunting isn't no damned hobby—hunting is a way of life, an art." He gives the kind of performance where you wonder how much Murphy is acting and how much he is this character, until you glance at the headshot in which he has slicked-back hair and well-plucked eyebrows, and wears a suit jacket.

Susan Capra, playing Baylor's wife Meg, also utterly convinces as the goodhearted, put-upon, naïve country hausfrau. Likewise, Frieda Lipp, playing Jake's more cosmopolitan and Californian mother Lorainne, displays a widow's bitterness that balances between vulnerability and stoicism, grief and an insanely giddy hopefulness.

Anna Podolak, playing the brain-injured Beth, has the most difficult role in the play, since the character has to start with screams, stutters, and baby talk and then become an articulate seductress over the course of two hours. While Podolak is adequate in the role, a little more rehearsal time might have helped.

The spare set design by director Kathy Curtiss utilizes the small black-box space well—it is minimal without being merely suggestive. Like the play itself, everything counts.

When in love, one inevitably faces the choice of whether to destroy what one is or be destroyed by it. As James Baldwin once said, "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." One must either keep repeating oneself in the "rut" of a love or choose to destroy one's own history to break free from its illusions.

Like the many possible definitions of "lie" in the play's title, the play itself resonates with a variety of meanings: love as sex, love as deception, love as violence, love as one's place, and love as a ditch one can't climb out of—the more you try to scramble out, the more the dirt crumbles beneath you as you fall back in. This wonderfully stark production offers a powerful voice that demonstrates all of these bleak possibilities.

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