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Hard truths

Trinity Rep's stunning 'A Lie of the Mind'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 4, 2014

"HE IS MY HEART" Faulkner and Grills. [Photo by Mark Turek]

No way we audience members are going to sit back contentedly while the self-deluded characters in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind are the only ones shaken up. With this stunning Trinity Repertory Company production (through June 29), director Brian Mertes has been as creative as the playwright.

At the outset, on Eugene Lee’s wide-open, purposefully cluttered set we see cartons of bottled water. In an action not in the script, one of the characters packs them into an oversize suitcase and throughout the play struggles to lug around this untapped relief. In an even more prominent metaphor, the only door is set in a wall of electric fans — at first inert, eventually balky, ultimately full-powered, as the unrelenting winds of change blast past all resistance.

In the opening, we don’t see the beating that Jake (Benjamin Grills) has given his wife Beth (Britt Faulkner), we just hear his lamenting on the phone to his ever-forgiving brother Frankie (Charlie Thurston). Jake is convinced that he killed her this time. But she survived, though her face is black and blue and her head is clamped rigid in her hospital bed. Her mind is confused and her speech muddled (“Who fell me here?”), but her brain damage has given her a childlike simplicity (“I’m above my feet!”). And clarity. To her comforting brother, Mike (Billy Finn), she declares of Jake: “He is my heart.”

That last line is a throwaway here, observed lightly, though in the heart-wrenching interpretation at Trinity in the 1980s it was so anguished that I can still bring it to mind and feel a chill. This production has taken a more balanced approach, with other troubled characters sharing our sympathy. Sometimes humor relieves the tension, as when Lorraine uses a bag of ice cubes to breathe into like a paper bag, our only indication that she is stressed.

Beth and Mike’s parents are scary American archetypes. Mother Meg (Anne Scurria) is an ever-beaming, “yes, dear”-ing adapter to spousal tyranny. Father Baylor (Timothy Crowe), a Montana rancher, is the sort of bellowing, angry “Get me a beer!” patriarch that keeps red states crimson. Crowe makes him deeply unsettling; to say his temper is volcanic sounds too passive.

Jake’s upbringing was hardly more benign. His father died when he was a young boy, so his only manly influence was his mother, Lorraine (Janice Duclos). She knows that he will never take his anger out on her or his brother Frankie, but outsiders? — well, she observes, “inevitable.” Duclos makes her scarily chirpy, increasingly smug as strangers perish, although we can’t help but love her spirit as a survivor. Daughter Sally (Rebecca Gibel) is the one dragging around the suitcase but never slakes her existential thirst.

Yet Jake is no facile villain. He seems to feel victimized by his own anger, though not to absolve himself; helpless, rather. The proof is his getting so depressed, immobile, that even his mommy’s spoon-fed delicious soup can’t move him. His jealousy, which prompted his violence, is entirely baseless and irrational, so there’s no chance it will stop. As he calmly says to Beth, “Everything in me lies. Tells me a story.” Jake hasn’t given up the desire to change, but he knows himself too well to think he can.

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