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.
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.
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).