Something is rotten in the heartland in Sam Shepard’s often searing, often confounding A Lie of the Mind. The play’s epic sweep and parcel of unlikeable characters make it a tall order for any theater company. It’s one that Theatre Pro Rata mostly climbs in their production at Nimbus Theater.
The play centers on two families connected by marriage and abuse. Before the play begins, Jake savagely beats his wife, Beth, and leaves her for dead. He retreats to the family’s home, overseen by his domineering mother, Lorraine. Jake’s connection to reality seems to be tenuous at the best of time, and his act of violence has driven him over the edge. His siblings Frankie and Sally have troubles of their own with their mother, dead father, or (in Frankie’s case) with Beth’s family.
Beth has suffered serious brain damage from the beating, which means she has trouble thinking and speaking clearly. Her family often seems oblivious to these issues, whether it is dad Baylor (another overbearing parent), mother Meg (who seems to have slipped off into a half-world of sanity and insanity), and protective brother Mike.
Frankie’s uninvited visit (which results in a bullet through the leg) draws the net between the families closer. Shepard takes a close look at the decay at the heart of the American dream (at least, the decay that existed in 1985), skewering expectations of freedom and the mythic allure of the free-ranging West along the way. The men here all feel like they are above the everyday concerns of women, society, and the law. It leaves all of them hollow inside, and the only thing they can find to stuff it is booze, hunting, and violence.
Nate Cheeseman and Amy Pirkl are riveting as Jake and Beth, even if they only share one scene together. The same level of engagement comes from the brothers Frankie (Gabriel Murphy) and Mike (an impressive Bear Brummel), as they bring out the sense of rot that comes from the older generation.
That’s a bit more problematic. Lorraine and Baylor are larger-than-life characters, and Kit Bix and Don Maloney pitch their performances accordingly. The lack of nuance becomes wearing, as there is not enough of it to keep our attention from beginning to end of the scenes. That eventually breaks near the end of the play, as each character gets a moment to step away from the volume, and our engagement quickly increases.
Shepard and director Carin Bratlie Wethern give us plenty of arresting images and theatrical moments — a bloodstained American flag provides a sharp one near show’s end — and lots of hefty meat (beyond the venison dumped on the middle of the stage in act two) to chew on. A Lie of the Mind isn’t an easy ride, but it is one definitely worth taking.
IF YOU GO:
A Lie of the Mind
Through September 27
1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612-234-7135 or visit online.