Pictured: Brian Paulette and Jake Walker. Photo by Mike Tsai.
By Bec Pennington
Sam Shephard’s ambitious work, A LIE OF THE MIND, is both funny and pitiful with deeply dysfunctional characters who create their own dreadful circumstances while being absolutely inept at handling them. It reveals how far the mind can go in seeking shelter from the storms of reality, and the self-sabotage that imposes.
Each character in this drama has “checked out” in their own way, preferring the comforts of their delusions to the pain of what is directly in front of them. The plot focuses on a psychotic paranoid and a battered woman, and their relatives’ reactions to their relationship. There is the hovering enabler who can see no wrong in her dangerous son, and the sister who wavers between the longing for escape and the desire for closure and answers from their muddled past. Jake’s brother, Frankie, assumes the responsibility of determining the truth when Jake claims to have killed his wife in a jealous rage, but doesn’t seem to have thought through what he will do with the truth once he has it. The battered woman’s brother is convinced he can violently extract the justice of contrition, others distance themselves with selective amnesia and distractions. Only Beth has the excuse of a brain injury for her troubles. Though she has lost her memories and much of her speech, we glimpse through her halting expressions that the emotional foundation was already disturbed before her husband broke her body.
This play is long, with about a three-hour run time including two 10-minute intermissions. Shephard’s tough subject matter requires the slow burn, but is brilliantly saturated with humor. The celebrated playwright masterfully filled the script with comfortable, conversational dialog that easily draws one in. Cinnamon Shultz directs this show with reverence, and it receives the appropriate setting and attention to detail from the Scenic Designer, Bret Engle, with a notably well-designed lighting scheme by Ashley Kok. The geometry of the stage is at once striking in its ability to convey that the parallel plots are disparate angles, if not totally different stories. In an example of great production work, a set element that brings a tenuous sense of closure to one side of the story, without changing at all, becomes a harbinger of anxiety to the other side, holding the audience enrapt right up through the final line.
The players’ abilities are a mixed bag of acceptable competence and exceptional strength. Gary Neal Johnson, Merle Moores, and Jan Rogge explore the full depth of their assignments as the parents, while Hillary Clemens, Forrest Attaway, and Jake Walker adequately fulfill their respective roles. Brian Paulette is believable as the unpredictable Jake, and Christina Schafer’s mostly incoherent ramblings lull the audience into almost writing off her invalid Beth in the perfect setup for her gut-wrenching third act insights.
All in all, the Kansas City Actors Theatre has pulled together a compelling reason to get over to Union Station’s City Stage.
A LIE OF THE MIND runs through October 1st. For more information visit kcactors.org.