BWW Review: A LIE OF THE MIND Dazzles but Lacks Danger at Dirt Dogs Theatre
Most theater companies stay safe when they do a Sam Shepard script, and choose either BURIED CHILD, TRUE WEST, or FOOL FOR LOVE. They are his most well-known works and standards to produce. 1985's A LIE OF THE MIND is a daunting finish to that particular quadrilogy and artistic directors tend to avoid it. Perhaps because the original production ran nearly four hours long, or because it requires an ensemble of eight who are up to a marathon of dysfunction and surrealism. It's tough stuff, but somehow DIRT DOGS THEATRE company feels ready for the challenge. Their latest revival of this one reminds me of what I loved about the show back when it was new but also makes me realize the flaws now that several decades have progressed our view of men and women.
The show opens during the aftermath of a domestic abuse situation that thankfully we never witness. Jake has become so enraged at his wife that he has beaten her to the point where he thinks he has surely killed her. She is alive but laying in a hospital bed with severe brain damage. Both Jake and Beth take shelter with their respective families, but throughout the show we realize, in horror, that parents and siblings are about anything but healing. They are inflicting even more damage to everyone involved in this mess, and nobody is going to get out of the trap whole or intact.
This is a tough show on actors, who have to find a way to make the abuse real but also manage to find the humanity within each character. Annie Wild brings Beth to life without even one sentence that makes much sense, and she is achingly gorgeous to boot. She's the one to watch here, as her wounded animal of a performance is on point throughout the evening. Norman Dillon is her brother, and Jeanette Sebesta and Casey Coale are her mother and father. All three deliver the right dynamics to a family that is fiercely protective yet oddly completely unaware of each other. They talk at people and never connect throughout. Beth and her family are the strongest part of this production, and they navigate the dense script that calls for a lot of each of them.
Less successful are Jake and his kin. Alan Brincks has the right physicality for an abusive husband, but never brings enough convincing menace to make his violent tendencies seem inevitable. He's at his best when Jake has tender moments but struggles when asked to throw a tantrum of rage. Equally at odds with the material is his mother played by Sally Burtenshaw who tones down her role. I've seen productions where Jake's violence is mirrored in his mother, but Sally decides to play her meek and not as wildly off-kilter. The end result is we believe she is crazy possessive, but have a hard time buying she is dangerous. Ellen Dyer dances around as the sister to Jake and pulls off a gem of a performance as the most lucid sibling in the entire show. Michael Morrison is sweet as Frankie the other brother, but again he misses some of the darker material by reaching for a lighter tone throughout. We do feel for him though when he finds himself a captive of Beth's family.
It might be that the directors were looking for something of 2019 in 1985's A LIE OF THE MIND. Malinda L. Beckham and Trevor Cone are certainly the best candidates in Houston to wrangle this one out since their company is noted for wildly masculine testosterone-fueled theater. They may have sought more of the humanity and less of the brutality that the original work seemed to have. This production is interesting nonetheless, it just has a different tone than usual. Like a cover of your favorite song in a different key. This A LIE OF THE MIND isn't as brutal or shocking as it usually is, and has a gloss and sheen unique to a small theater. One thing the directorial pair does is amp up the production values in a huge way.
From setting to soundscape, Dirt Dogs has made this entire experience physically impressive. The set is a wonder of crisscrossing power lines and two domestic spaces divided on either side of the third auditorium in the MATCH complex. Mark Lewis and Melinda Beckham have constructed a world that feels tactile and real for this grim look into Americana. Andrew Vance's lighting design is equally impressive with flashes of neon and interesting visuals swirling around the space. Elizabeth Nguyen's sound design is a third character in and of itself, often inserting voices around the theater to accompany the actors as they dive into the deep dark waters. The only effect they miss is the deer carcass which is surprisingly cartoonish looking without much gore, but that seems in keeping with the adjusted tone overall.
This is a clean and sleek retelling of A LIE OF THE MIND that skips the more abusive notes found when the show appeared first in the late '80s. This Dirt Dogs production is ambitious in scope, skillful in execution, and a marvel of theatricality. At just under three hours I was never even slightly disengaged with what was going on, but it did feel safer than it should. It was the junkyard dog A LIE OF THE MIND has always been but on a pretty chain this time. I wanted a little more danger but ended up getting quite a bit of dazzle. Sometimes that's enough to sustain you. Yet I wonder if A LIE OF THE MIND has as much to say in 2019 when you realize one of Houston's toughest companies fears it's more ferocious side.
A LIE OF THE MIND runs through June 8, 2019 at the MATCH complex. Tickets can be acquired online at either matchouston.org or dirtdogstheatre.org. The play runs three acts with two intermissions. There is some nudity in the production, and it deals heavily with domestic abuse.