November 17, 2013

A Lie of the Mind: Two Lives, One Stage

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Full of deep symbolism, powerful emotion and commanding acting, A Lie of the Mind opened Friday at the Schwartz Center. Directed by Jesse Turk ’14, PMA, The 1985 play by Sam Shepard follows husband and wife Jake and Beth as they retreat to their respective families following a physically abusive relationship. Thereafter, the work follows the couple as they cope with crippling mental illness.

The play, whose story is told by alternating between two different families that occupy the stage simultaneously, opens with Jake (Rudy Gerson ’14) calling his brother to report the death of his wife, Beth (Sarah Coffey ’16). In this call, he admits that over the past few years, their relationship had been marred by brutal abuse and hostility. Opposite Jake, on the other side of the stage, Beth lies in a hospital bed in bandages, recovering from bruises and brain damage that has left her unable to walk or express complete thoughts, but not killed by Jake’s abuse. Jake is taken to his childhood home to be monitored by his mother and sister, where he again falsely proclaims Beth dead. Meanwhile, Beth returns home with her parents and brother, where she begins to recover. As she improves physically, Beth becomes more and more mentally unstable — and, as her commentary proves, begins to resent her family.

Staged in the Schwartz’s Flex Theatre, the set for the play is simple but effective in tying together the performance. The subtly patterned backdrop fades into two designs on the floor that compartmentalize the homes of Jake and Beth. Each scene alternates between these two adjacent sets. Visually, the stage creates a powerful juxtaposition of the couple’s families as they approach the trauma of their children: While one attempts attentive nurturing, the other copes with trauma through structured rehabilitation and denial. Fluidly shifting from one side to the next, the blocking quite literally emphasizes the common ground between Beth and Jake, as they assume central positions to speak of their emotional scars and struggle to gather memories.

In A Lie of the Mind, Shepard utilizes strong symbolism and intriguing literary parallels. Under Turk’s direction, the performance incorporates these effectively. While Jake sifts through the memorabilia of his father, he comes across an American flag — commemorating his time in service. Later, the flag trails behind him as a cape on his distraught journey across the country to find his brother and Beth, an image that conveys the link between himself and his father, to whom the flag had previously belonged. In A Lie of the Mind the identities of the characters are constantly shifted — Jake taking ownership of the abusive nature of his father, and Beth, eventually taking on the apathy in her marriage that once led Jake to abuse and neglect toward her.

Ultimately, the acting comes across as natural, though the emotional intensity of the production could have been more effectively maintained. At times, the comic relief written into the script is overemphasized — at one point, heated dialogue is paused entirely, which disrupts the natural buildup of tension between the characters. However, the actors — especially in lead roles — have a commanding stage presence that captures and holds the audience’s attention through the confusion of streams of consciousness and disconnected thoughts. Coffey excellently portrays Beth’s brain damage, making her condition apparent without overdoing it. In the second act, she smoothly progresses to recovery and, with it, regains a charmingly subtle sense of humor.

The final scene of the production is especially intriguing and brings out the strongest acting in the play. Jake’s family, Lorraine and Sally (Melanie Dreyer-Lude, PMA and Katelyn Pippy ’15), are left alone at his house and, as the two most sane characters, converse intimately and naturally. This turns out to be a perfect juxtaposition to the other side of the stage, as Jake appears in Beth’s home and each character is overwhelmed by their own troubles. The dazed lack of reaction between any of the characters in the final scene is the most powerful portrayal of dysfunction in the performance, exuding the chaotic disconnect within each family and between the couple. The play, centered around the suspended relationship of Beth and Jake, culminates with a mere glance, without dialogue or recognition, between the couple, symbolizing the resolution, through dissolution, of their marriage.

Ultimately, the deep symbolism written in A Lie of the Mind makes for a powerful performance and the emotional development of the characters was conveyed well. The depth, however, is stronger in some scenes than others. It is intriguing, even overwhelming, and showcases superb student talents.

A Lie of the Mind is a part of the main-stage spotlight series this fall at the Schwartz Center. Performances are scheduled for Nov. 22 and Nov. 23 and tickets can be purchased at or the Schwartz Center Box Office.

UPDATED: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that A Lie of the Mind is part of a guest director series. It is actually part of the main stage spotlight series.