This isn't the Montagues and the Capulets. It isn't even the Hatfields and the McCoys. The battle between two seriously screwed-up families in Sam Shephard's A Lie of the Mind is even darker and more deranged than either of those infamous feuds.
Directed by Jacqueline Reid, the Fusion Theatre Company recently opened a new production of Shephard's play at the Cell Theatre. The play opens with a heated phone conversation during which Jake (Vic Browder) tells his brother, Frankie (Ross Kelly), that he's just murdered his own wife, Beth (Laurie Thomas). The scene shifts to a hospital room in which Beth sprawls out across a bed with bandages wrapped around her skull. Her brother, Mike (Dean Eldon Squibb), sits pensively by her side. It quickly becomes clear that Jake didn't succeed in murdering Beth. He's merely beaten her to the very brink of death, leaving her brain-damaged and helpless.
As the play progresses, we're introduced to two additional members from each family: Jake and Frankie's weary sister, Sally (Anna Felix), and their crazed mother, Lorraine (Kathy Millé-Wimmer), as well as Beth and Mike's parents, the submissive Meg (Shelley Epstein) and the belligerent, dumb-as-a-stump Baylor (John Hardman). Scenes shift back and forth between the two families. Jake's kin try to get a handle on a raging son who openly claims to be a murderer, while Beth's family tries to figure out what to do with their damaged daughter.
There's supposed to be only one brain-damaged character in this story, but almost every character seems a bit touched. Most of them are crazy, stupid or some lethal combination of the two. Lorraine, played with easy perfection by Millé-Wimmer, is a swirling tornado of maternal neurosis. In other local productions, Kelly often plays a smart-talking pretty boy. It's a character he plays very, very well. Here he plays against type. With his bad haircut and trailer park wardrobe, he does a nicely understated job as Frankie, a backward, soft-spoken dimwit.
With his penchant for gratuitous violence against wildlife, Mike—played with hilarious energy by Squibb, especially during the latter parts of the show—is the kind of backwoods lunatic you wouldn't want to cross paths with while alone in a forest. Likewise, Baylor, with his cracked feet and obsession with antlers, seems to be several donuts short of a dozen.
The dumbest, scariest jackass in this sorry bunch is definitely Jake. Browder does a pretty fine job of unloosing his character's impotent animalistic rage. His excuse for attempting to murder his wife is particularly obtuse. Basically, he doesn't approve of her aspirations as an actress. "That's no job!" he rants. "I've had jobs before. I know what a job is. A job is where you work. A job is where you don't have fun. You don't dick around trying to pretend you're somebody else. You work. Work is work!"
He seems to resent Beth's desire and ability to step outside the confines of her unpleasant reality, even though no one in his right mind could blame her for it. Disturbingly, no one in this play ever seems to quite be in his or her right mind.
The set for this Fusion Theatre Company production is a work of beauty. The entire back wall is covered with twinkling starry lights. The blue moon of Montana shines from the upper left corner. Two raised platforms occupy the left and right sides of the stage, allowing for quick shifts between families.
This cast does a decent job with some challenging material. During the first act some of the pacing seemed a bit off. Lines were rushed. The performers didn't seem to quite lock in with each other. Later on, though, most of them hit their stride.
A lot of Shephard's dialogue is extremely funny, but you might feel bad about laughing during some of the darker bits. I know I did. At over three hours, the play isn't necessarily an easy slog either. Still, Sam Shephard is Sam Shephard. If you're in an appropriately twisted mood, Fusion's A Lie of the Mind might be a worthwhile experience. At the very least, it'll make you feel a lot better about your own life.
A Lie of the Mind, a play by Sam Shephard directed by Jacqueline Reid, runs through March 6 at the Cell Theatre (700 First Street NW). Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. $22 general, $17 students/seniors. Thursday performances feature a $10 student rush (with valid ID) and $15 actor rush (with professional résumé). Group discounts are also available. 766-9412.