The opening moments of A Lie of the Mind, now at the Boxcar, stand among the most intense in all of theater. Jake (a feral Joe Estlack) retches in the dark, then tries to pound off the wall the pay phone into which he's shouting. Practically foaming at the mouth, Estlack can articulate little more than "She's dead." Then, in another corner of the theater, Beth (Megan Trout), a woman Jake has beaten so badly that she has lost memory and linguistic ability, screams in a hospital bed while her brother Mike (Tim Redmond) tries to restrain her — a little too forcefully.
Two whole scenes have passed, but the show feels like it's lasted less than a minute. And incredibly, director Susannah Martin sustains this initial energy over the course of Sam Shepard's three-hour drama. It's an unwieldy behemoth of a play that, as Martin jokes in her program note, "is the one in which Shepard took every idea, image, or theme that he was ever interested in and threw them in a blender." These include the American family and its dissolution, love and its destructive power, the Western frontier and the wild brutes it reduces us to — or exposes us as. But under Martin's direction, this frenetic magnum opus plays as a series of taut, poignant individual moments, each of which feels at once impossible and urgently necessary.
Jake and Beth, the retching man and the hospitalized woman, are husband and wife — but in a marriage where love and violence are one and the same. Jake is convinced that he killed Beth, but he doesn't stick around to find out that Beth's not dead; she's just "so empty now. Everything. Gone. A hole." For Shepard's characters, evidently, brain damage does not preclude poetry.
In the wake of the accident, when parents intervene to separate Beth and Jake, most of the characters have forgotten that the two are married. It's an easy slip to make. Beth and Jake follow the laws of the wild, ever ready to kill a brother or jump in the pants of a brother-in-law. Yet they're also childlike, each regressing into the womblike protection of the bedrooms he or she grew up in with the alacrity of essential belonging. Rather than serving as society's backbone, married young adults, in Shepard's disillusioned view, are parasitic and combustible. It's a moving vision at a time when the traditional American family ideal is under pressure from different forces, some good—progressive notions of sexuality—some bad—economic malaise, the disintegrating middle class, and radical social conservatism. With A Lie of the Mind, Shepard proves himself to be on the vanguard of rupturing this tradition.
Jake and Beth's families are frontier people in rural Colorado and Montana in the 1970s. From their inhospitable landscapes they've absorbed a certain hardness, hollowing out their human cores in order to survive. Husbands leave wives — either by taking off or by mentally absenting themselves. Wives get left, or beaten — if not with physical bludgeoning then with marital enslavement. Daughters get banished for the crime of coming home, and brothers try to become their families' fathers, meting out twisted frontier justice only to discover that the clan needs protection from itself.
It's a Hobbesian world, populated by characters who are at once mythic, frighteningly real, and unequivocally alone. That's Shepard's vision at its core: Family are both the people you understand in some primal, physical way and the monsters of your nightmares.
Martin's ensemble gives forceful performances that are all the more alive in the Boxcar's intimate space, the actors close enough to make you press back into your seat. Estlack makes Jake bestial. His shoulders are tensed forward, his neck is almost horizontal, and his face turns blue in delirious rage. Trout as Beth finds humanity in a character who struggles to communicate but is forever chasing the wrong men. Carolyn Doyle, as Meg, Beth's mother, creates effective comic contrast as an inhabitant of some alternate universe where everyone's nice and polite. And Don Wood, as Meg's husband, Baylor, is both funny in his over-the-top stoic masculinity and compelling as a tyrant terrified to get the first challenge to his authority.
The Boxcar now has four of Sam Shepard's plays running simultaneously as part of its four-month event, "Sam Shepard in Repertory." But if you can only withstand one evening of fucked-up Shepardian families, this show might well be the one to catch. If it's not a once in a lifetime production, it at least does this play justice, setting a formidable standard to which other interpretations should be compared.