Madness Reigns in Shepard Revival at Magic Theatre

Jake (Sean San Jose) has a vision of Beth while trying to get his sister Sally (Elaina Garrity) to help him in his cause.

Jake (Sean San Jose) has a vision of Beth while trying to get his sister Sally (Elaina Garrity) to help him in his cause.

San Francisco’s Magic Theatre has had a long history with Sam Shepard. In 1971, the theatre staged its first Shepard play, La Turista.  Starting in 1975, Shepard was playwright in residence for ten years at the Magic, where he premiered many of his seminal plays, including Buried Child, True West and Fool for Love.

Kicking off with Shepard’s 70th birthday in 2013, the Magic has been celebrating his work with a five-year “Sheparding America” project  that started with a revival of Buried Child helmed by Magic artistic director Loretta Greco.  Now Greco is teaming up with a couple of the same actors (James Wagner, Elaina Garrity) to take on another Shepard classic.

Although it dates from around the time of the end of his residency, A Lie of the Mind has never  played the Magic until now. It’s a very strange play about very strange people from two very different but similarly messed-up families, united by marriage and violence.

Beth (Jessi Campbell) awakens in the hospital in Magic Theatre's A Lie of the Mind.
Beth (Jessi Campbell) awakens in the hospital in Magic Theatre’s A Lie of the Mind.

The story starts shortly after a husband beats his wife so severely that he thinks he’s killed her.  We see the young wife. Beth, awaken in a hospital, brain-damaged and speaking partly in gibberish. Disturbingly,  the incident is played for humor in a farcical conversation that follows between the husband, Jake, and his brother Frankie. Jake’s paranoid rant about how he could tell Beth, an actress, was cheating on him could feel menacing; he’s already demonstrated how dangerous he can be. But Sean San Jose’s twitchy Jake is like a young boy having a tantrum. Frankie, the concerned brother played by Juan Amador,  tries to find out exactly what happened,  but the the goofy faces Amador keeps making  turn the conversation into a grim Abbott and Costello routine.

Jessi Campbell’s Beth is terribly affecting in her zoned-out distress, furiously frustrated and terrified for reasons she can’t  articulate. Jake, too, becomes feverishly delirious and borderline amnesiac, retreating to his childhood bed where his mother is only too happy to take care of him. In a parallel move, Beth goes back to recuperate with her parents in Montana. The rest of the play moves back and forth between these two families caring for their broken children, sometimes showing both houses at once on opposite sides of Robert Brill’s simple but versatile set of a bare wooden floor tilted toward the audience.

Lorraine (Catherine Castellanos) looks after her son Jake in Magic Theatre's A Lie of the Mind.
Lorraine (Catherine Castellanos) looks after her son Jake in Magic Theatre’s A Lie of the Mind.

But the parallels don’t end there. Everyone in the play is deranged and miserable—except Jake’s sister Sally, who’s just exasperated as played by Garrity. Catherine Castellanos as Lorraine, Jake’s mother, is pathologically self-absorbed in her brusque dismissal of any truths about her family that don’t fit her own embittered narrative. She babies her returned son even as she tries to shoo her daughter away as an interloper. Ultimately you can see that Jake’s raving paranoia runs in the family.

Just as Beth dwells in a state of maddening vagueness, her mother, Meg (pleasantly smiling Julia McNeal), is quietly out to lunch, not even able to remember whether it was herself or her mother who was hospitalized for a long time. Her husband, Baylor (a curmudgeonly Robert Parsons), is always either off hunting or sitting around kvetching about all the freeloaders and crazy women in his house. Beth’s brother Mike (Wagner) at first seems simply concerned and slightly exasperated, but his sense of aggrievement and a need to protect the family grow to monstrous proportions. Frankie, meanwhile, becomes increasingly delirious due to an untreated, festering wound. It’s as if the damage that Jake inflicted on both Beth and himself at the start of the play is hardly any deeper than the creeping madness infecting both households.

A recovering Beth (Jessi Campbell) is confronted by the true nature of things in Magic Theatre's A Lie of the Mind.
A recovering Beth (Jessi Campbell) is confronted by the true nature of things in Magic Theatre’s A Lie of the Mind.

Although this craziness builds effectively in Greco’s production, the  play seems even longer than its almost three-hour running time. An account of the death of Jake’s father late in the play feels interminable, in part because of Garrity’s affectless delivery and in part because we haven’t been given any reason to care about the long-gone patriarch. Sure, he still looms large in Jake’s mind, but that’s such a scrambled organ that Jake’s obsessions don’t bear much examination unless you’re in the psychiatric profession.

Everyone’s so childishly selfish and lacking in empathy that it’s hard to have much investment in them. As Lorraine says of her dead husband, “He was one a’ them hopeless men. Nothin’ you can do about the hopeless.”

A Lie of the Mind runs through February 22, 2015 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.

All photos by Jennifer Reiley.

  • voltairesmistress

    Why don’t local theater critics call out a bad play? Why must we audience members keep attending awful productions because nobody with media clout warns us away? I have no such clout, but I hope a few readers at least will be spared this piece of shite play. My friend and I walked out at intermission. Why? Because either the play itself or the acting led us to care nothing about the characters. Because neither of us give a damn about a crazed, violent man or his hapless wife. You want to listen to this garbage? You need not gussy it up with Sam Shepherd’s authorship. Just head to the Tenderloin and listen to abusive male drunks and addicts belittle and threaten their women. You will get about as much enlightenment and enjoyment as this current theater production provides.

Author

Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News in addition to his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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