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Theatre Pro Rata's A Lie of the Mind is haunted by the American West

Amy Pirkl

Amy Pirkl

The myth of the rugged American West, where men could protect their families, hunt for their own food, and smoke Marlboros with impunity, lingers to this day. Playwright Sam Shepard explores this in several of his most famous plays, including A Lie of the Mind, which opens this week at Theatre Pro Rata.

“I think it’s also one of Sam Shepard’s strongest in his quintet of plays about the death of the American dream and the struggles of the American dream. He was at the peak of his writing powers. It feels like his Hamlet,” says Pro Rata founder and director Carin Bratlie.

A Lie of the Mind looks at a pair of families in a nebulous American West. They are connected by couple Jake and Beth. When Jake attacks and seriously injures Beth, each retreats to their respective family homes. The production features Nate Cheeseman as Jake and Amy Pirkl as Beth. The cast also features Gabriel Murphy, Bear Brummel, Kit Bix, Joy Dolo, Don Maloney, and Delta Rae Giordano.

The play calls for a certain type of performer. Shepard's work demands actors “who are not afraid to be ugly. They are comfortable in their own skin and that allows them to be present onstage. These are characters who are more comfortable isolated and alone and in the woods,” Bratlie says.

“There are many things that Shepard is intentionally ambiguous about. Where are we [in the West]? We kind of don’t know. We sort of know three locations. There are no concrete locations. I think he did that intentionally,” Bratlie says. “Then there is a lot of sort of fascinating and yet still nebulous relationships between and overlapping the families.”

Shepard also plays with traditional views of men and women, especially as how they play in our perceptions of the American West. “There is the idea in the play that men are similar to predatory animals and women are parallel to prey animals like goats and deer and things that are hunted,” Bratlie says. “There is the classic sense of the hunt. They spend all day in the woods, being masculine and male on the frontier. It is interesting to look back 30 years since the play was written and see how some of these ideas are outdated. It is all exciting to dig into.”

There are also plenty of universal concerns in the piece, including how one deals with parents, especially fathers. “There are connections between Sam Shepard’s relationship with his father and this play. In the play, the sons are striving to be their fathers, and they are able to achieve that goal. It is sort of a love song to his father,” Bratlie says.

Toss in issues of mental illness and a sense of characters on a quest, and you have a design for an epic play. Shepard’s work also offers some great challenges for the producer. The locations are not just vague, they are often fluid, with overlapping scenes and even props from one household showing up in another.

“The stakes are very high. Death is on the line for many of these characters. That’s one of the reasons why it's relevant and universal today, because the themes are universal. These characters are trying to pin down what home is. Those are all such universal ideas; that helps make it stand up and makes it relevant today,” Bratlie says.

IF YOU GO:

A Lie of the Mind

Saturday through September 27

Nimbus Theater

1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

$14-$41

For tickets and more information, call 612-234-7135 or visit online.