Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind is as American as Topdog/Underdog is black. It's a virtual epic poem/novel/absurdist road movie of the mind. Above all, it's a three-course feast for eight actors. In Manhattan Theater Source's production, director Daryl Bolling sets some especially ravenous performers loose on this banquet. Shepard's 1985 play is initially about a marriage doomed by the husband's relentless insecurities, violence, and paranoia; opening out, it takes on post-World War II American life. Jake (Todd d'Amour) thinks he has beaten his wife, Beth (Laura Schwenninger), to death in a jealous rage. When he confronts the possibility that she may be alive and recovering somewhere, he becomes obsessed with finding her.
It turns out Beth and Jake are both yearning to reunite, but their families won't let them. Each partner is in torturous recovery—physical for Beth, psycho-spiritual for Jake. The beating has left Beth brain-damaged, but it hasn't diminished her love for her husband. Likewise, Jake is an infantile brute fighting off memories of his dead father's abuse and neglect, but he can't live without Beth's love.
The play crosscuts between Jake and Beth in their neutral corners (California and Montana, respectively) with their crazy families, while Jake's brother Frankie (Jeff Wills) goes on a quest to confirm that Beth is alive. Frankie just wants to ease his brother's scrambled mind. Like most foolish acts in this play, Frankie's journey arises out of pure love.
In the midst of arguments, crossed signals, and reconciliations, illuminating family histories spill out. Shepard uses plain middle-American vernacular to whisk us from decade to decade, city to city, soul to soul—imagery conjured solely from the characters' reminiscences. Shepard's young and old Americans speak only of their own experiences in strict dramatic context, but he makes the stories feel emblematic and panoramic.
It takes superior actors to preserve the poetry in these passages without coloring over their plainspoken realism. On the other hand, too much restraint could render the lines flat, mannered, and tediously familiar. Bolling's triumph is that his entire cast is up for the challenge, though some show more imagination than others.
As the main protagonist and dramatic catalyst, d'Amour kick-starts the play with the appropriate jolt. He makes Jake's menace and vulnerability linger as a presence even in the scenes where he doesn't appear.
Each actor has dazzling moments to spare, but the big surprises are the unexpected standouts. Campbell Echols, as Jake's sister Sally, brings the most lived-in realism to her line readings. There is never any doubt that she has lived the scarred, compromised life her monologues attest to.
Another great standout is Cindy Keiter as Meg, Beth's hilariously earnest, docile mother. At a glance, Meg appears to be Edith Bunker/Gracie Allen on autopilot, but Keiter makes Meg's innocence genuine at every instance, then negotiates turns in Shepard's dialogue that reveal depths of emotional intelligence and strength. That's simply what the role requires, but Keiter makes these transitions dizzyingly graceful.
In a heart-stopping moment, Meg's fussy, domineering husband, Baylor (Hank Davies), chips away at her relentless optimism until she is forced to reveal to him that her passivity is mostly for his benefit: If he knew how helpless he'd be without her, his entire macho world would crumble. Keiter understands Meg so well that she elevates her to a kind of heroine for the compulsively empathetic.
On a slightly lower rung, Schwenninger, Davies, Ridley Parson (as Mike, Beth's brother), and Wills give vibrant but relatively unadventurous interpretations of their characters. Schwenninger makes Beth as blunt and physically uncoordinated as you might expect, but her longing doesn't resound as forcefully as Jake's, making the invisible magnetic pull between them feel a little one-sided.
Likewise, Davies draws some of the biggest laughs from Baylor's absurd aloofness and machismo, but he rarely displays anything more than surface irritation in the hunter-rancher's verbal assaults on his family. Parson and Wills, as the put-upon, overprotective brothers in each clan, play exasperation a bit too broadly at times. Yet all the cast members show enough of a grasp of their characters to deliver an inspired surprise on any given night.
Bolling smoothly corrals his ensemble on a wide (I want to say widescreen) plank of a set, managing the space with a fluidity that makes the scene transitions feel cinematic. When the action shifts from California (stage left) to Montana (stage right), the sense of distance, cultural and geographical, is palpable.
All this talk about depths and dark themes might obscure an important fact: the play is funny as hell too. Shepard's absurdism springs so purely from emotional truths that the shock of recognition simply tickles. As Jake's doting mother, Lorraine, Emily Mitchell is the cast member who tap-dances most nimbly along the play's tragicomic ledge. When Lorraine tells Sally about the husband/father/war hero who abandoned them for a life of alcoholic brooding, Mitchell turns Shepard's prose into a lacerating requiem and a hilarious riff in the same breath. Now that's how an actor should come to the table at a classic Shepard play: starving.