Home Is The Place Where, When You Go There, They Have to Take You In: Sam Shepard’s Lie of the Mind At The Lord Leebrick

Jake (Kato Buss) and Lorraine (Rebecca Nachison). Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Forget the obvious age issues, the saggy middle of the play, the oddly cartoonish writing at the climax – the reasons to go see Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind at the Lord Leebrick Theatre (through June 3) number at least two: Kato Buss and Mary Buss.

Not to give short shrift to Jeffrey Cook’s evocative and flexible set or to Rachel Kinsman Steck’s lighting design – which without being intrusive works to illuminate both the actors and their emotions – or the strong direction of Richard Leebrick (who, like Kato Buss, adores Sam Shepard), but without the family Buss, this would be quite a different, and I suspect lesser, experience.

Both Kato – who now has his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon – and Mary have raised the bar for Eugene acting during the past few years. I know at least Kato (congrats on that job, but damn you for leaving) won’t be here next season, so it’s especially great that they’re the vital center of Lie of the Mind. The play trades in images of wounded, lonely, lost people who go on damaging one another past the point where anyone with a lick of rationality would fearfully call a halt.

Indeed, action opens with an anguished, slightly surreal and definitely nightmarish phone call in which Jake (Kato) tells his far-away brother Frankie (Jacob King) that he’s killed his wife. He doesn’t know where he is; he doesn’t tell Frankie how to find him; he just hangs up the phone and wails.

Frankie (Jacob King) and Mike (Mike Hawkins). Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Also wailing (though internally more than externally), Beth (Mary) awakens in a hospital bed, seriously injured. Her brother Mike (Mike Hawkins, who hasn’t been on the Leebrick stage since the tour de force Pillowman production a few years ago) falters between a deep wish to help her and an overwhelming desire for revenge.

Both Jake and Beth come from hardscrabble families; Jake is the scion of an alcoholic fighter pilot, with a mother (Rebecca Nachison) who both favors and abuses him, and Beth’s father Baylor (Achilles Massahos) is straight out of Small Western Town Central Casting, with his heads of cattle and his hunting shack and his inability to see anyone else but himself.

He’s not the only self-focused one. Beth’s mother Meg (Gloria Nagalo) can’t focus on the world around her or remember events well; perhaps Shepard means us to know she’s nearly as brain-damaged as her directly injured daughter from her years with the mercurial, grumpy, unloving Baylor. Massahos pulls off a tightrope act as Baylor, who’s both a crazy asshole and a man deeply dependent on women, and Nagalo as the alternately generous and vacant Beth. Their orbits are fixed; Beth and Mike don’t really figure into their lives.

Shepard’s message, perhaps? The arid, deadly West damages men, and its men damage women. I’m reminded of Joe Wilkins’ painful and powerful essay Out West  – “We hurt the land, and it hurt us. Sometimes it hurt us physically … and sometimes it struck us in other, deeper ways.”

But Wilkins handles the harshness of Montana’s outer and inner landscapes with a sensitively honed touch; Shepard, on the other hand, uses class and rural life as a bludgeon. At the first intermission, one woman in line for the bathroom said to another, “I don’t know how Shepard can write about these characters. They’re all so unlikeable.” To put it mildly.

Perhaps there’s something about shadow characteristics, in a Jungian sense, for women watching this, or any, Shepard play. Jake’s mother Lorraine (Rebecca Nachison) alternates between a horrid coddling and a just as damaging neglect of her son. She doesn’t care if he’s killed Beth; she doesn’t even care about Beth at all except as a rival who took her son away from her. She sends her daughter Sally (Michelle Nordella) away when Sally seems to upset Jake – and there’s more than a hint that she’s also been complicit in letting Jake molest Sally. Nachison bites into the role of Lorraine with relish, treating the kids, including the sweet and hapless Frankie (King plays Frankie with a good mix of courage and naïvete, but both he and Nordella, with their unlined faces and youthful energy, seem to exist in an entirely different world from the rest of the cast), with a terrifying mix of disdain, regret, anger, possessiveness, suffocating care, and displeasure.

Who would want to be Lorraine or Sally or Meg? And who would want to be Beth, the magical truth-teller, the victim, the helpless one? Beth takes on a quasi-mystical role in the second act as she explains and resists the pull of her childhood home, but she also desperately desires her husband, her abuser. Where is he, this man whom her mother can barely acknowledge meeting? Where is he, this husband, whom she misses and wants to see even through the fog of the brain injury he caused her?

Why, he’s sorting through memories in his childhood room. He’s plotting to escape his mother. He’s dealing with memories and mementos of his WWII veteran, asshole, alcoholic, abusive, wreck of a father – a man whom he essentially murdered.

Beth (Mary Buss), with Meg (Gloria Nagalo) in the background. Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Shepard embraces Big Symbolic Touches like Beth, wearing her dad’s shirt, talking about how the clothes make the man – or make a human a maaaan. Like Jake wrapping himself in his father’s American flag and setting out for Beth’s family house, 500 miles away from his home, with no pants because his mother hid them. Like Lorraine’s burning of memories, her abandonment of the past and all of its complicated emotions. Why, you could write many a paper – and oh yes, it’s been done – on Shepard’s Symbols.

At certain times, I find them a tad bit obvious, a tad bit trite. The headless deer carcass in the living room. The flesh wound poisoning the innocent boy. Shepard’s bludgeon comes out hard at the climax. Those who revere the physical flag neglect the wounded; men like Mike who claim to protect women often just want to dictate to them out of competition with other men.

Yet sometimes wild heart attracts itself to wild heart, and things go wrong in mean, hard, petty, soul-crushing ways that can’t even be epic because epic is too much for these characters to reach for.

Joe Wilkins: “Go over it again: how it begins with the whims of wind and want, or maybe just some quick moment of stupidity; how failure and shame, even in an instant, become so impossibly heavy, a sack of stones you must shoulder; how this then is fear; and how fear someday detonates you — the slow implosion, the breakneck explosion.”

That’s Jake. That’s Beth. That’s Mike, and Baylor, and Lorraine. That’s the death of the family and the death of the past – except the past, of course, is never gone at all. It’s right there, embodied in everything these characters plan, say and do, embodied in the ways Jake lives in Beth and Beth inside of Jake.

Shepard gives the theatre crowd an entire shadow region of life – while we’re the ones who don’t beat each other up, the ones who know how to get a wounded man to the hospital, the ones who take responsibility and serve each other with honor and compassion, we know we could be like that. Shepard’s repellent characters may then serve a purpose for those of us who feel mauled by his plays: the knowledge that we’re capable of anything. And we can choose to do better by each other – and by ourselves.

The play runs through June 3 at the Lord Leebrick, 540 Charnelton St. Tix available at 541-465-1506, here, or at the door (though Leebrick plays have been selling out this year).

A Gaggle Of Playwrights, A Gallimaufry Of Plays: Northwest 10 Hits Its Fourth Year

What stands out most vividly from the Northwest 10 might be similar to what stands out from last year’s Winter’s Tale, also at the Lord Leebrick Theatre: Local actors Tom Wilson and Dan Pegoda make a good comedic team, and Pegoda plays the banjo well.

Wilson’s not even onstage for their particular pairing in “Lunker,” but his voice echoes in the head long after the 10-minute play, by Kato Buss, comes to an end – an end slightly different, and far more amusing, than the tale on which it’s modeled.

You see, the Northwest Ten doesn’t contain 10 plays – it’s a festival of several 10-minute plays, mostly by Eugene playwrights. This is its fourth year, and the plan for attendees remains the same: Don’t like a play? Wait 10 or 12 minutes, and boom! New play, new characters. Like the weather in Eugene in the spring, I know. Actors and directors tell me it’s fun, and rather a lot of work considering the 10-minute result. This year’s playwrights responded to a theme: Writing on the Wall. In the results, that’s rarely a physical demonstration, more often an ominous phrase hovering over the characters’ actions.

The plays, with their need to set the scene rapidly, establish character and contain a reveal, have an uneven quality that can be charming or annoying. I found myself wishing that they were developed more like sketches, but perhaps I’ve been watching too many random pieces of Portlandia.

Still, playwrights, wouldn’t it be pleasant to develop the idea with your cast? That might create more seamless intentions and better performances. I haven’t asked Kato Buss, but I wonder if he had his two adult characters in mind when he wrote “Lunker” – his play, directed by Mary Gen Fjelstad, exhibited the closest fit between characters as written and actor ability (I should add that in “Lunker,” 8-year-old Nalua Manaois was admirably cute and had all of her many lines down – nicely done).

The bleak “Fool on the Hill” may be one of this year’s keepers, though I wasn’t a big fan of its tone – Ty (Jay Hash) seemed at first to be heading in a different emotional direction than where he ended up, and both Daniel Borson as the annoyingly panicked Steve and Paul Rhoden as the crazed Paul might have been more convincing with less flailing about.

I also kept wondering if these characters had ever read anything about survival in the wild, which was definitely not the half-existential, half-violent point of the play. Or am I taking it too much into the psychological realm when it was the hand of a malevolent spirit (Bob Buechler, the Tree) that caused them to lose their logic? In any case, like a lot of horror, it sticks around.

I suppose loneliness and loss worm their way into our memories and hearts more easily than something like “You Slay Me,” a comedic contribution by Laura Robinson. In that piece, Ron Judd pulls off quite the amusing transformation with a light, surefooted touch that’s fun to see. (Some of the stage business seems too big for the story itself, but it’s still an enjoyable little piece.)

In “Picketing for Pros,” Jorah LaFleur (literally) kicks some serious energy into the proceedings, making her character, Caroline, both outrageous and sympathetic – and hilarious. I admit to an extra laugh at the mention of “an Iowa City clinic” (wave to the fantastic Emma Goldman– is Portland playwright Ari Chadwich-Saund from the Midwest? Hm…). I didn’t think the revelation of Caroline’s actual job fit with her character in general, but again, I might simply want people to be more consistently good than any playwright would go for.

Paul Calandrino is the original NW10 idea guy and one of three producers behind NW10 this year. His contribution is “Cape Perpetua,” in which poor Jay Hash has to play another schlub and Sarah Papineau has to play the schlub’s annoyed girlfriend. I think this piece is a well-intentioned morality tale with characters who are a bit too stereotypical to work. The annoyed girlfriend redeems herself in a fashion that seems both naïve and overly sweet, which is not at all like the other 10-minute plays we’ve seen from Calandrino. I’m uncomfortable with the politics around asking someone who’s not from the disabled community to play a man with a severe disability, but Dale Light performs that character – unfortunately the vehicle for the girlfriend’s redemption – well.

Have you noticed a theme aside from writing on the wall? Many writers are directors or actors in the production. “Fish Climbs Tree”’ by Light features Tom Wilson again acting beautifully (that terrified whine!), but one of the two main premises, involving a gun and a computer, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The last play, “Inner Tube” by Fjelstad, had me laughing despite some awkward acting over the New Age/Western-style “Buddhism” bullshit its characters spout while one rips the other’s heart to shreds – such a perfect play for Eugene.

The turnEnsemble with Brandon Rumsey, James Bean, Sarah Pyle and Noah Jenkins, all students at the UO, provides music between and occasionally during the plays. It’s unobtrusive and provides small little hints about what’s to come in several of the plays.

The NW10 is always a mixed bag – but one that gets the brain spinning. You’ve got one more weekend, this one, to see the plays on Friday or Saturday nights or at the Sunday matinee (there’s a talkback after that one) – the tickets are $15, $12 for people 25 and younger, and you can get them by calling 541-465-1506 or clicking here.

What Should I Do This Weekend in Eugene? Top Picks!

Michael P. Watkins as Lawrence Jameson and Tom Wilson as Freddy Benson, the two con men. Photo by Rich Scheeland

What should you, arts loving person, do this weekend? My recs, in a vague order:

1. Nixon in China at the Eugene Opera. Two performances: tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Hult Center. Tix here or at the box office (some are quite reasonably priced – and hint, if you scan the QR code on the opera’s poster and use the coupon code to get tickets, they’re even cheaper. Yes, I did that). I wrote about original opera idea guy Peter Sellars and soprano Laura Decher Wayte earlier in the week, and here’s Bob Keefer’s story from the Register-Guard.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Very Little Theatre. Tix at 541-344-7751 or at the door, if there are any left – this one is totally selling out, people. Get your tix for next weekend maybe?

3.  The Crucible at the University Theatre – tix here or at the door (free if you’re a student with a student ID starting at 7 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night). Last two shows!

4. Fahrenheit 451 at the Lord Leebrick – tix here or at 541-465-1506, if there are any left.

5. Pina in 3D at Valley River Center 15 – yes, it’s coming to the Bijou, and I swear this will be the only time I pick a disgusting mall over the sweet little Bije, which I freaking adore …  but it’s not in 3D at the Bijou (fingers crossed that this will happen someday). Both director Wim Wenders (swoon for Wenders!) and critics near and far have said the 3D is FANTASTIC for dance movies. (I am also not a big fan of 3D – I think it’s a gimmick, for the most part – but in this case, DANCE. 3D. Yes.)