Though this show and its brilliant staging is seemingly surreal at times, if we consider the vast interior spaces within these characters to be our subject matter and setting then this wild and hallucinatory tale seems wholly naturalistic. And that’s part of the point. In the canon of Sam Shepherd’s many plays folks are fragmentary beings at best, entirely incomplete and searching for their lost bits, halves and selves. The characters we meet here are archetypically American, living on the fringes of the dream but ones who would also be equally at home on King Lear’s heath or Samuel Beckett’s apocalyptic landscape. What we encounter in “A Lie of the Mind” is a depiction done in deft and haunting poetry of humanity stripped down to its essence.
The grace and scope of Shepard’s words are served very well here by Brian Mertes’ brilliant direction and Eugene Lee’s dreamy, trippy and all-encompassing set. The entirety of the small downstage theater has been painted white. There is a plastic wading pool by the apron of the curved stage and at the rear a wall has been made of a tall stack of square window fans with a door for entrances in the center. Though this empty and desolate space will soon become more cluttered with odds and ends, actors and more set pieces, here the seemingly inchoate is utterly specific, lucid landmarks in a dreamscape.
At the outset we encounter an actor arranging cinder blocks upon the floor and it is as if he is laying the sub-textual foundations for this play, a space where our consciousness shall be both riveted and allowed the contemplative freedom to wander and ponder. This mood is enhanced by the music written and performed onstage by Phillip Roebuck that is earthy, bluesy and pulses throughout and punctuates the action of the play.
As for that action, the main event of “A Lie of the Mind” occurs before the play begins. Jake (Benjamin Grills) has beaten his lover Beth (Britt Faulkner) badly, he believes, to death. It is the consequences of this action on them and their respective families that is explored here; we witness not the brutal blow but the after effects, the lingering, healing bruise and the festering wound left upon the soul. Along the way we encounter their families as well as the themes that populate Shepard’s work: absent fathers, alcoholism, the American west, nonsensically no-nonsense mothers, and, most importantly, a sense of inner emptiness and the urge to retrieve that which was lost.
That is a lot to encompass but Director Brian Mertes keeps our attention rapt and focused and the haunting and visceral stage pictures he devises allows the events of this play to seep into our attention on both literal and symbolic levels. He makes Shepard’s text absolutely clear, no mean feat with the lyrical language these characters express themselves in. Beth and Jake utter some stark, simple and essential truths onstage and quite often the dialogue consists of seemingly subconscious reactions to external events, unedited utterances fly out of mouths because the feelings behind them are buried so deep the characters don’t know to think about them. It is no accident, for example, that the brain-damaged but insightful Beth confuses the word ‘costume’ for ‘custom’. We face our reality behind an outer façade that we have fashioned, that which is really ourselves lies elusively far below. “You ever think about the things you say?” asks one character and the answer here is “no, we don’t.”
“How could you know this thought in me?” asks Beth and as she asks the beautifully expressive face of Britt Faulkner, wary, alert and haunted, registers an absolute longing for answers. Hers is a heartbreakingly intuitive performance in the role. As Jake, Benjamin Grills is, appropriately, far more of a feral child than a battering brute. Also quite appropriate and absolutely harrowing here, each of these two actors seem onstage to be a lost soul, searching endlessly for that which has been sliced out of them.
The entire Trinity Rep Company here is absolutely crackerjack. Tim Crowe shines as a sly and wizened Baylor. As his wife Meg Anne Scurria is a loopy and ethereal presence but one with a heart of steel hidden beneath the layers of wispiness. Janice Duclos is casually chilling in her matter-of-fact portrayal of Jake’s mom Lorraine.
Rebecca Gibel seems to be ever-toiling under put-upon burdens as Sally. Billy Finn and Charlie Thurston offer honest and insightful performances as Mike and Frankie. All offer spot-on performances as the disparate parts of two dysfunctional families.
As the action unfolds, director Brian Mertes will keep the actors from a previous scene onstage while the subsequent scene starts, either immobile or in stylized motion and this works, these are hardscrabble folks always spinning their wheels and like the bank of electric fans behind them, each is in perpetual motion but getting nowhere. Though, for some, not all hope is lost.
The shared experience of witnessing “A Lie of the Mind” is so special and singular that description tends to diminish this event. Though it clocks in at three hours you wouldn’t know it, time, as in dreams, seems to fly by. During intermissions and after curtain call a collective hush seemed to hold sway over the audience, none wished to break the spell of what we had just seen. This production at Trinity Rep is just that profoundly moving and director Brian Mertes weaves a spell with Sam Shepard’s words to create as great a depiction as humanly possible onstage of our fractured and frenzied consciousness. “How could I know something that I didn’t know?” muses Jake and Brian Mertes highly intuitive interpretation of this great American play goes a long way towards answering that question, an answer found not in the mind but in the heart. The lies our minds devise prove here to be utterly heartbreaking.
“A Lie of the Mind” at Trinity Repertory Company, now through June 29. See listings for details.