Under a swaybacked roof fretted with junk, two half-feral American families come together in a snarl of love and violence: A beaten wife and a batterer husband yearn dangerously for each other across impossible distances. Man and deer are mistaken for one another and fired upon accordingly. A woman isn’t sure which nervous breakdown she’s suffering, her own or her mother’s. This is Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, a rambling, rumbling Rauschenberg Combine of a play, 25 years old and still as quick and raw as a cold beefsteak on a black eye. You can smell the tang of hemoglobin in the air. (Several revisions have been made to the script, though none feels dramatically consequential.) Under the direction of Ethan Hawke—and I think we can officially dispense with the parenthetical smirk that once accompanied that phrase—Shepard’s savage love ballad lands its gut punches of black anomie and blacker humor solidly in the breadbasket.
But Lie isn’t about violence so much as the aftermath of violence—about what’s left of a family (and a country) when its vicious animal energies are spent. Ultimately, the play isn’t driven by its haplessly and halfheartedly homicidal men, but by its women, in particular its dilapidated mothers (Laurie Metcalf and Karen Young) who’ve endured the supreme insult of Surviving Everything. With graceful, ghostly assists from the ambient art-music duo GAINES (emanating abstract folk from homemade “found” instruments) and the aforementioned set (another fantastic flea-market farrago from scenerist Derek McLane), Hawke conjures a transcontinental marriage consecrated in hell.
The play comes at you way too fast, in a big tangle of present relations and past disasters: Jake (a shorn, cut, and coiled Alessandro Nivola, ears flatted, hackles up) is convinced he’s killed his wife, Beth (Marin Ireland), in their latest blowout. He hasn’t—just knocked half her brains out, leaving her in a baby-talk haze. (Ireland, tearing into the mad-prophetess role at full shriek, almost overpowers the show in the early goings, but settles in nicely.) Beth’s carted back to Montana by her unpummeled, but equally cracked parents, Meg and Baylor (Metcalf and the superb Keith Carradine), whose own hilarious horror show of a marriage looks like something the Marquis de Sade might’ve dreamed up while squatting in a deer blind. Along for the ride is Beth’s vengeance-bent brother, Mike (the nineties indie mascot Frank Whaley, drawing from what feels like a deep reserve of grievance). Meanwhile, Jake descends into a psychotic sulk, suffocated in the Oedipal embrace of his mother, Lorraine (Young), censured by his insufferably sane sister (Maggie Siff), and fixated on the mysterious death of his father: He takes to wearing his dead dad’s bomber jacket, the American flag off his casket, and little else. When his gentle, ineffectual brother, Frankie (a quietly excellent Josh Hamilton), decides to find Beth and apologize for just about everything, he’s received in Montana with a bullet through the thigh. In Shepard’s America, this passes for rapprochement.
With one brother hobbled mentally and the other physically, Lie calms down, mercifully, letting its real soul rise like a filament of smoke. Ultimately, the play’s polarity sways between two very different mothers, Lorraine and Meg, who emerge as the real, governing forces here—Lorraine as hungry devourer of her own family, Meg as the devoured, meat to her husband’s table. Metcalf, in particular, achieves tremendous results in a tiny, snowed-in voice, playing a broken matriarch who can only meet the mounting madness around her with platitudes as leached and blasted as she is. “Screaming,” she assures her brood (and herself) with characteristically insistent vagueness, “is not the thing we’re born for.” What is the thing we’re born for? This is Sam Shepard, so don’t expect a satisfying answer, but feel free to expect a satisfying evening: In terms of theatrical alchemy, Hawke and his team have achieved a near-perfect union.