Family fight night

A Lie of the Mind

Yes, Ma, I beat up my wife. Now gimme my creamin’ wheat!

Yes, Ma, I beat up my wife. Now gimme my creamin’ wheat!

Photo By David fulk

Cosumnes River College

8401 Center Pkwy.
Sacramento, CA 95823

(916) 691-7344

Rated 5.0

Most Sam Shepard plays are manic, menacing and moody, sprinkled with dark humor. A Lie of the Mind is no exception; like many of Shepard’s plays, this one deals with a family ripe with violence, frustration, lost dreams and wayward roads taken. In short, it’s dysfunction, and it’s a look at two families whose dynamics come together in an explosive way, tied together through a brutal domestic beating that leaves lasting consequences.

Shepard captures what could be termed the New West, his characters roaming the Western states or settling in small towns that confine them, define them and ultimately drag them down. Or in some cases, the characters do their own dragging, including enough emotional baggage to warrant excess surcharges. These plays aren’t easy to watch, but they are harder to dismiss, captivating life stories that are compelling, but also make you glad they aren’t your stories.

River Stage opens their 15th season with A Lie of the Mind, directed by Frank Condon, the theater’s artistic director. The choice is fitting, since Condon has made a name for himself and River Stage by offering plays that many times take a new, if occasionally jaded, look at life, love and the skewed American Dream. Under Condon’s careful direction and with strong performances, A Lie of the Mind is a riveting tale of two families.

The opening is jarring: Jake, a 30-something man in the midst of an out-of-control mania, in which he is trying to explain to his brother Frankie that he has just killed his wife, Beth. In a quick follow-up scene, we see Beth in a hospital bed, trying to tell her brother Mike about the beating, but she’s unable to do so because of brain injuries sustained in the brutal domestic attack.

It’s clear from the very beginning that this won’t be light fare. It’s not. But thanks to the layering of really dark humor, it’s also sardonic, cutting and funny in surprising ways.

The two families take protective sides, and neither is very sympathetic. There is Jake’s tribe: his mother, brother and sister. Beth’s support consists of her brother, mother and father. All are working with damaged goods, either handed to them or doling them out, and various strained relationships are explored, including siblings, mothers, fathers, children and spouses.

The production presents an exceptional cast, starting off with the compelling performance by Allyson Finn as Beth, who takes a role that could be painfully self-conscious and makes it realistic and sympathetic. Dan Featherston does the same with Jake; he layers his pain with pathos, allowing some humanity to a character that has few redeeming qualities. Both are supported by other memorable performances by Dan Morin as Frankie, Michael Beckett as Baylor, Shirley Sayers as Lorraine, Georgann Wallace as Meg, John Ousley as Mike and Shannon Carroll as Sally.

Ultimately, what’s fascinating is the amount of sympathy that these unsympathetic characters can conjure up. In the end, it’s possible to root for these disparaging, damaged spirits, in the hope that something or someone can be salvaged from such a mess.