Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Truth emerges in “A Lie of the Mind”

Shannon Carroll, Dan Featherston. (Courtesy photo)

Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” now offered by River Stage at Cosumnes River College’s Performing Arts Center in Sacramento, attracts audiences largely because of the author’s name. Famous as a movie star as well as a playwright, Shepard is author of the popular “True West,” “A Buried Child” and “Fool for Love.” The lesser known “A Lie of the Mind,” which won a 1986 Drama Desk Award, also continues to woo production.

Its quirkiness is emphasized by Managing Director David Czarnecki’s opening spiel to the audience. He assures us that it would be all right to laugh if we hear anything funny in the show. At the performance we saw, nobody seemed to laugh. But no one seemed to leave during either of two intermissions.

Like most of his plays, Shepard sets this one in the rural American West. It’s a kind of deeply disturbed modern “Romeo and Juliet,” involving two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Montana where we lay our scene. Actually one family is in Billings and the other in Carson, California.

Under Frank Condon’s shrewd direction, Kale Braden provides a minimal set. Most of the action focuses on a stage right bed for the California family and on a stage left couch plus chair for the Montana group. (We never learn the last names of either family.)

The play begins as we hear California’s crazy Jake (Dan Featherston) screaming into a telephone, confessing to his younger brother, Frankie (Dan Morin), that he’s murdered his wife, Beth (Allyson Finn). Suddenly the focus shifts upstage, where Beth, in a hospital bed, with her head swathed in bandages, seeks with deranged babbling some assurance from her brother, Mike (John Ousley), assurance that she’s not dead.

As the play unfolds we’re introduced to the two families. On the California side we meet Jake’s volatile mother, Lorraine (Shirley Sayers). She’s obsessively protective about Jake, who wraps himself, literally, in an American flag. Bitter about the husband who abandoned her and their children, she nevertheless berates daughter Sally (Shannon Carroll), when the girl disrespects her own absent father.

Heading the Montana side is the imperious Baylor (Michael Beckett). Obsessed with hunting, he takes no responsibility for having accidentally shot Frankie after mistaking him for a deer. Wounded in both legs, Frankie occupies the couch, where he has to fight Baylor for control of its one blanket. Baylor’s reasonably sane wife, Meg (Georgann Wallace) gradually nurses Beth back to near coherence with help from Mike.

Beth, now almost seemingly normal, believes she’s married to Frankie instead of Jake, who somehow wanders onto the Montana family’s property. Mike captures him and his flag, forcing him to confess his crime against Beth. In a grotesque moment, as Mike struggles to show Beth her real husband, Baylor and Meg ignore him as they patriotically fold up the flag they worship.

The acting is strong all the way through, and the action maintains a brisk pace in this lean production. Special plaudits go to Finn, for the complex transitions in Beth’s character, and Featherston, for his exemplary interpretation of a violent psychotic.

“A Lie of the Mind” continues through October 25, except for October 24 and 25. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at 8401 Center Parkway, Sacramento. Tickets are $10 to $18. Call (916) 691-7364 or go to www.riverstage.org. You can also get tickets by e-mail at riverstage@crc.losrios.edu.

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