A Lie of the Mind mines family secrets at the Bug

Thundery weather and a voice in the darkness: This is how A Lie of the Mind begins. Jake is on the phone telling his brother Frankie that he's killed his wife. Previously, he'd only hurt Beth, but this time it's different. Over his brother's protests, Frankie insists on visiting his sister-in-law to discover her condition. This is our introduction to two hideously dysfunctional families, as the action moves from Beth's childhood home to Jake's and back again. We soon discover that Beth is not dead, but terribly hurt. And Frankie gets shot through the thigh for his peace-making efforts.

Although these families are very different, on some essential level they're the same. There's vicious rivalry in both, terrible cruelty — both intentional and the result of pure, blind idiocy — and also a very occasional moment of unexpected tenderness.

The plot unfolds with recurring motifs: living people who think they're dead; urgent messages that never get conveyed; an interchangeability of personality: Beth falls for Frankie because when he speaks she hears Jake's voice; her brother Mike savages him because as far as he's concerned one brother's as good — or as bad — as another. The anger that caused Jake to beat his wife nearly to death stemmed from her involvement in a play and his growing conviction, as he watched her donning makeup and high heels every day, that acting meant convincing yourself you actually were the person you portrayed. So the question of how we become who we are, along with the role of memory, is explored again and again. At one point, Beth holds up one of Jake's shirts: "Look how big a man is," she says. "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."

Personalities are mutable. When we first see Mike, he's tending gently to his sister. Soon, his actions will be deeply hurtful to her. Jake's mother, Lorraine, and sister Sally have no use for each other: When Jake's around, Sally's invisible and worse — an out-and-out nuisance — to sickeningly solicitous Lorraine. Until the two women come together at the end of the play in a moment of wildly destructive affirmation.

Through all this, Beth tries desperately to bring her fragmented thoughts and impressions into some kind of coherence, sometimes delusional, sometimes arriving at an insight as clear as an untroubled lake: "He's given up love," she explains to Frankie of her woodenly narcissistic father. "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."

As always with Sam Shepard, images and objects often communicate what words can't: an American flag, a mutilated buck, a fire in the snow, a drift of ashes floating up over a face, a woman's naked shoulder.

The Bug Theatre's production is a workmanlike effort that communicates at least an outline of this long, troubling work. But the production lacks sharpness, specificity, vision. And though there's talent in the cast, few of the actors seem to have searched for subtlety and nuance in their characters, and some are unsuited to their roles. It's hard to see Chris Bleau's Jake as frightening, for instance — and it's crucial that you do. And Paul Jaquith's Frankie comes across as a little too one-note innocent, frightened and youthful.

The crucial role of Beth is played by the excellent Haley Johnson, and she has some fine moments. But the aimless hand movements that are so effective at the evening's beginning become distracting toward the end. And I quarrel with director Verl Hite's decision to send Beth on stage in a grotesquely clownish outfit for the scenes in which she thinks she's about to marry. This is the single character we've consistently cared about and empathized with: Why turn her into a puppet? In a way, the most pleasing performance is the most understated, and that's Mary Kay Riley's as cool truth-teller Sally. Riley is sometimes a little too distant and disengaged, but she's a refreshing presence nonetheless, and her low-key naturalism makes her bombshell revelation about a long-buried family secret doubly effective.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman