Steppenwolf Theatre


at the Shubert Theatre

Though hardly a bomb, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind encountered a lot of negative reaction when it ran, under Shepard’s own direction, in New York City. The unspoken reason, I think, being that people had finally got just a little bit sick of Shepard’s charming face. The rock ‘n’ roll wild man with a Pulitzer Prize; the cowboy experimentalist hunk with a hot acting career, perfect looks, and Jessica Lange; the New Age Gary Cooper, moving with quiet ease from Caffe Cino to Academy Awards night–it was more than the rest of us were willing to take.

And A Lie of the Mind offered an excellent opportunity not to take it. Here was some of the most assailable Shepard in years. The script’s a cut-and-paste recycling of familiar Shepardian conceits: the violent lovers out of Fool for Love; the role-switching brothers out of True West; the zombie mommy, no-account daddy, and law-of-the-frontier absurdities out of practically everything you can think of. All of it inadequately edited and stuck into a structure that squanders our focus by splitting it up between two worlds that never manage to connect as they should.

Worse yet, the writing suffers from a schematism, a tameness, an awful conscientiousness, as disappointing as it is unexpected. Where Shepard’s other plays tend to riff jazzlike through endless amazements, A Lie of the Mind sticks hard to its program. The thing’s positively goal oriented. You can almost hear the playwright, sitting at his desk in some gorgeous and inaccessible corner of America’s southwestern desert, asking himself, “What’s my objective in this scene?”

Add in the four-and-a-half-hour New York running time, and you’ve got yourself one hell of an occasion for an anti-Shepard backlash.

Of course, audiences might also have been put off by what, coming from Shepard, looks like a cockeyed–and very peculiar–optimism. A Lie of the Mind starts out ugly enough, with coarse, stupid, beastlike Jake telling his brother, Frankie, that he’s beat his wife, Beth, to death. As it turns out, he’s wrong: Beth’s not dead–only damaged to the point where she’s got to learn how to walk and speak again.

Still, Jake’s convinced; and he goes into mourning the way a dog or Stanley Kowalski might–retiring to his ma’s house, where he lies in bed and refuses to eat. Frankie, meanwhile, sets out for Beth’s family home in Montana, hoping to prove his brother wrong. Which he does, though not before he’s been mistaken for a deer and shot in the thigh by Beth’s daddy, Baylor. The long middle of the play shows Jake coming around on his side of the stage while Beth heals on hers. Ultimately, having intuited the truth about Beth, Jake follows Frankie to Montana, wearing boxer shorts, a flier’s leather jacket, and the American flag his dad was buried in.

Then comes the cockeyed part, at least insofar as Shepard’s concerned: a happy ending. A strange, oafish triumph for enlightenment and love. It’s not like True West, where the most sympathetic character’s big mistake is in failing to strangle his brother with enough force; or Curse of the Starving Class, where human relations come down to the image of an eagle and cat ripping each other to shreds in midair. Here, the menace ends and people learn. There’s a kind of evolution. Even a gentle patriotism. A Lie of the Mind is Shepard’s song of reconciliation.

It’s tempting to see a certain arrogance or exhaustion in this, especially if you’re sick of Shepard’s face. Maybe all those simple-but-true values he’s been promoting in movies like Country and The Right Stuff have finally got to him. Maybe his 20-year critique of the American ethos has finally ballooned up, under the influence of success, into a sermon. Maybe he’s just too rich and happy to be sharp.

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think Shepard’s engaged in an anti-Shepard backlash of his own. This play, I think, is his awkward, confused, and very self-conscious attempt to confront his own vision. And complete it. Which would make him neither arrogant nor exhausted, but rather brave.

Shepard’s bravery, unfortunately, can’t fix his play. And neither can Steppenwolf–though it’s fun seeing them try. Director Julie Hebert’s lopped a good hour off the running time, for starters, by doing away with the New York production’s long musical interludes and replacing them with fine, hard (and brief) blues segues by Mike “Lightnin'” Wells. Hebert’s also been blessed with extraordinary supporting performances by Randall Arney, Robert Breuler, Laurel Cronin, and Jeff Perry–performances that allow her to move from an absurd and occasionally condescending comedy into regions of real power. It’s wonderful to see Cronin, for instance, build Beth’s mom from a lost ditz into a wholly engaging human being; or to watch Perry invest the brutalities of Beth’s brother with a loving desperation.

For all her good sense and strong help, however, Hebert can’t unify Shepard’s schizoid structure. In fact, she’s aggravated that weakness by casting her husband, Mark Petrakis, as Jake. Petrakis is working against type and over his head in this role; he’s unable to project the enormous, almost telekinetic force required of the character. Nor can Amy Morton make up for the loss at her end. An engaging if somewhat too spazzy Beth, Morton remains stranded in Montana. And Shepard’s song of reconciliation never quite gets sung.

Like Shepard’s play, I’m Not Rappaport came to town with a certain amount of backlash built in. Number one, it’s by Herb Gardner, whose last, long-ago success, A Thousand Clowns, is remembered as a quaint period piece that couldn’t bear revival. Number two, it’s being toured as a star vehicle for Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little, who are called upon to dress up old and kibbitz–black man/Jew–on a park bench in Central Park. What can you do with statistics like those?

As it turns out, you can enjoy them. I’m Not Rappaport confounds every negative expectation. It’s a very funny, surprisingly powerful show with a set of excellent performances and a lot to say about what it means to grow old in urban America. So much for backlash.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.