Jake has always been a batterer — when he was a boy, he stomped a little goat he loved — and he always feels terrible afterward, alternating between denial and a crippling sense of guilt and grief. As A Lie of the Mind opens, we hear a voice talking in the darkness: Jake, on the phone to his younger brother, Frankie, explaining that he's just beaten his wife, Beth, to death. At Frankie's urging, Jake retreats to his family home and the questionable comfort of his far-too-attached mother, Lorraine, and severely disenchanted sister, Sally. Meanwhile, Beth, who isn't dead but is horribly brain-damaged, is being taken care of by her brother Mike. Their parents are Meg, who's either feeble-minded or just plain tuned out, and Baylor, a mean-spirited narcissist who likes killing deer though he loathes the taste of venison. "He's given up love," Beth explains, searching her poor hurt brain for a way to link words with meaning. "Love is dead for him. My mother is dead for him. Things live for him to be killed. Only death counts for him. Nothing else." When Frankie arrives, wanting to ascertain whether Beth is alive or dead, Baylor mistakes him for a deer, shoots him through the thigh, and remains unrepentant. One brother is the same as the other, as far as he's concerned. And indeed, identities are very fluid in this play. Beth continues to love Jake but transfers this yearning to his wounded younger brother because she thinks their voices are the same.
When Mike brings Jake to justice, as he sees it, hauling him up to the house leashed with an American flag ("I broke him down good"), the response isn't what he'd hoped for. His father yells at him for debasing the flag; Beth, having been dragged outside screaming, seems barely to notice her husband. These men are trying to live by the traditions of the Old West, but those traditions are cracked beyond saving. As for the flag — that so fervently worshipped symbol of America — it's a treasure that Jake rescued after his Air Force father's funeral. Before it became his leash, he draped it around himself like a blanket, and at the play's end, in a sequence surely intended as redemptive, Meg and Baylor fold it slowly and reverently. Yet all the time they're doing this, Frankie writhes in pain on the sofa.
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A Lie of the Mind is an indictment of maleness — or at least of male conventions. In general, the women are saner and kinder than the men, even vengeance-seeking Lorraine, whose bitterness is at least comprehensible. Sally is a clear-eyed truth-teller, Meg and Beth remain capable of love, and it's Lorraine who creates the transformative final image of a fire burning in the snow. "Look how big a man is," says Beth, holding up Baylor's shirt. "So big. He scares himself. His shirt scares him. He puts his scary shirt on so it won't scare himself. He can't see it when it's on him. Now he thinks it's him."
A Lie of the Mind
Presented by Paragon Theatre through August 13, 1387 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org.
The language is profoundly evocative, as it is in all of Sam Shepard's work; there are revelatory images and resonant themes involving language, myth and identity. But this is not an entirely successful play. Like its characters, it has an unhinged, frantic, broken quality. Still, Paragon has put together a very strong cast. James O'Hagan-Murphy's Frankie is empathetic, and Carolyn Valentine creates a solid, sensible Sally. William Hahn, playing cruel Mike, is riveting and authoritative. Violent creeps have become something of a specialty for Jim Hunt, and his masterful performance as obtuse, ugly-spirited Baylor fills the stage. Tom Borrillo is stuck with Jake, who (like most real-life batterers) spends most of his non-battering time awash in self-pity; Borrillo makes him at least watchable. Edith Weiss, with her big eyes and expressive features, is a memorable Lorraine. And between them, Emily Paton Davies and Patty Mintz Figel provide the evening's heart — Paton Davies with a hurting, loving Beth, and Mintz Figel with that quality of clear-eyed truth and compassion she always brings to her work. These two performances illuminate the central theme, which focuses on humankind's existential loneliness and the understanding most of us share that love, no matter how vicious and corrupt, is the only protection we can carry with us into the void.