A Lie Of The Mind by Theatre Pro Rata, performing at Nimbus Theater

Nate Cheeseman and Amy Pirkl in A Lie Of The Mind.

Nate Cheeseman and Amy Pirkl in A Lie Of The Mind.

What’re you gonna do with an unwieldy – and bloodily frightening piece of stagecraft like Sam Shepard‘s A Lie Of The Mind (Theatre Pro Rata, performing at Nimbus Theater, through Sept 27)? You might just through up your arms and admit defeat: “This play sprawls, it’s too past-tense, and grim, it uses too much wild and scattershot imagery – blizzards and guns and drunken brawls on Mexican highways, dead animals, gunshot wounds and houses afire. Yikes. Let’s have some herb tea.”

Or you throw caution to the wind, pop the clutch and attack. This is what director Carin Bratlie Wethern and her determined band of Pro Ratians do, and while their efforts are not always successful – could anyone tame this ferociously self-indulgent play? – it does make for a watchable evening of theater.

A Lie Of The Mind starts promisingly: Jake (Nate Cheeseman) has just beat his mild and slightly mousey (more on this in a moment) wife Beth (Amy Pirkl) very nearly to death. Why? Because he fantasizes (on zero evidence) that she has cheated on him with an actor in a play in which she’s working. “I killed her,” he claims. Jake is over-the-top dangerous and Cheeseman makes him genuinely scary, sweaty and bad-crazy, a soon-to-boil-over teapot. His brother Frankie (Gabriel Murphy), lanky and eerily calm, tries, with only moderate success, to keep Jake in check. Murphy and Cheeseman are terrific.

Ah, but the best performance in A Lie Of The Mind is delivered up by Pirkl as Beth, the beating recipient. Jake has given Beth a serious brain injury: she’s aphasic. When she’s calm her speech is reasonably coherent, but she’s overwrought, and she often is, she’s garbled and squeaky, but in a very canny, very poetic way. It’s a brilliant theatrical conceit on Shepard’s part and Pirkl plays it to the hilt. She lights up every scene she’s in. Wonderful work.

After we’re introduced to Jake, Frankie and Beth, however, A Lie Of The Mind becomes an immoderate study of two families in Montana: guns and snowstorms and blood. And Beth’s eerie obsessions. I found this part of the play considerably less satisfying, though Wethern, to her great credit, keeps things moving and elicits some terrific performances from a crackerjack cast. I especially enjoyed the obstreperous and comically belligerent Don Maloney as Beth’s Dad and the coy Joy Dolo as sister Sally.

Is A Lie Of The Mind completely successful? No, but how can any production of a Shepard play ever really succeed? His work is too difficult, too weird, too explosive. With Shepard, always, something always falls short, and Pro Rata’s take on the material is as good as you can expect.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark has recently been published. A YA novel, about the young Abe Lincoln, Deep River, will shortly appear. His plays Sideways Stories From Wayside School and Art Dog will be produced by Childsplay Arizona and Salt Lake Acting Co., respectively. His screenplay, A Slaying Song Tonight, has been optioned. Please visit johnolive.net for more information.

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