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A late-night phone call from a deserted Montana highway, a woman’s motionless body on a gurney, two brothers facing the familiar once again.
“You didn’t actually kill her, did you, Jake?”
The words are inflected with concern but still casual enough that it’s clear Frankie (Chris Stezin) has been here beforeand often. His brother (Mark Rhea) has a violent temper when drunk and honestly doesn’t know whether he’s killed his wife this time. Fortunately, she’ll turn out to be merely brain-damaged, and Jake’s mom and sis will soon be offering comfort in the form of cream-of-broccoli soup. This is, after all, a comedy.
Welcome to A Lie of the Mind, situated deep in Sam Shepard territory, a place both deeply American and subtly surreal in the Keegan and Fountainhead Theatres’ sharply acted co-production. Shepard is contemporary playwriting’s uncontested poet of the plains, a rough-hewn answer to the David Mamets and Harold Pinters who peddle alienation in more densely populated settings. Shepard characters are estranged in ways not merely psychological but also physical. Families exist in isolation, their solitariness feeding an uncomprehending unease, in which disagreements fester and the act of reaching outexcept with the intention of pummeling someoneis either futile or suspect.
“Love…” says Jake’s mom (Linda High) in a comparatively tender moment, “Now there’s another disease….Only difference is, it makes you feel good while you’ve got it.” She’s apparently built up an immunity in the years since her husband abandoned her, though she’s sort of partial to Jake, the first-born, wife-battering son, who reminds her of his dad. She’s mostly dismissive of Frankie, the sweet-natured little brother (“He couldn’t find his own zipper”), who gallantly goes off to find out whether Jake’s wife has actually died. And she doesn’t quite know what to make of her daughter, Sally (Charlotte Akin), who stubbornly tries to steer a middle course in a family that’s all extremes. Jake’s seriously injured wife, Beth (Susan Grevengoed), comes from a similar familya brother (Jim Jorgensen) who’s prepared to kill anyone who comes near her, a dad (Kevin Adams) who seems indifferent to attempted homicide but will go to great lengths to ensure that a flag is folded correctly, and a mom (Peggy McGrath) who is so anxious to avoid disputes that she’ll agree to rub her hubby’s frostbitten feet with mink oil even though she knows it’s meant for boots.
That Beth can barely speak since Jake left her for deadGrevengoed spends much of the evening sounding almost feralmeans that others try to do her talking for her. To her credit, she doesn’t let them.
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Eric Lucas’ staging gives the actors free rein to explore parallels and differences between charactersangry elder brothers, rebellious younger sisters, mothers torn between protecting children and looking for lovethat most productions don’t bring out. The production is less sure on its feet physically, with a sprawling setting that would be twice as effective if it were half as broad and lighting cues that kept getting called early on opening night, leaving characters in the dark. Those are fixable problems, of course, in an undertaking that seems likely to end up being as rewarding as it is ambitious. Lie of the Mind will be joined in repertory by Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, with a mostly identical cast, and if it’s staged with similar intelligence, Shepard fans are in for a heady month.
“Is this all there is?” wonders Jerry Whiddon as he surveys the audience soon after taking the stage in the comically cosmic solo show Underneath the Lintel. His charactera hilariously single-minded Dutch librarian who is about to begin what his blackboard promises will be “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences”is supposed to be disappointed at the sparse attendance for his lecture, but it’s hard to imagine that Whiddon, as artistic director of the Round House Theatre, isn’t ecstatic as he looks out nightly at the sellout houses to which he’s playing. Underneath the Lintel qualifies as a terrific introduction to the company’s commodious new Silver Spring space.
Situated next door to the new AFI Silver Theater on Colesville Road, Round House’s black-box playhouse is at the end of a pair of long corridorsthe first tall with exposed ductwork and a refreshment stand, the second tighter and more finished, ending in double doors. They open on a gratifyingly large, high-ceilinged auditorium draped with acres of curtains. It seats between 100 and 150, depending on stage configuration, and has been outfitted for this first production with a raised stage and lots of stage detritus, most of which turns out to be just there for atmosphere.
All Whiddon’s chatterbox librarian really needs to illustrate his rambling 75-minute talk is his suitcase full of “evidences” and a slide projector. The evidences concern a library bookBaedecker’s Travel Dictionarythat was returned on his watch, some 113 years overdue. The projector allows him to present a sort of travelogue of the journey he then made in tracking down whya journey that took him to a dozen cities on five continents. He is nothing if not thorough, having collected what he calls “a bag of scraps to prove one life and to justify another”scraps that include a receipt for a quarantined dog, a pair of pants that had lain unclaimed in a London laundry since 1905, tickets to Les Miserables in several languages, and, if I heard him right, a bit of fossilized dung from an ancient turtle.
Clearly, playwright Glen Berger has penned a shaggy-dog story, but it’s one in which the librarian can discern a point. And you may well find yourself agreeing as Whiddon enthusiastically occupies himself with the tricky business of tying together accounts of English fox hunts, Australian lovers, 14th-century hats, and a man who stood under his doorway’s lintel, told the cross-toting Christ to move on, and ended up known as the Wandering Jew.
Jane Beard’s staging keeps Whiddon growling amiably as he prowls about in wrinkled pants, brushing a mane of flyaway hair from his eyes. At times, he seems to be surprising himself nearly as much as he is the audience. Looking at his librarian’s date stamp, he announces proudly that it contains every date in history. Then his gaze darkens as a cloud occurs to him: “My death is in there somewhere….I don’t know where.” Whiddon is marvelous company, even when the tale starts to trail off, as shaggy-dog stories are wont to do, at about the hour mark. If Underneath the Lintel were 10 minutes longer, it would overstay its welcome, but Whiddon & Co. are smart enough in their first Silver Spring attraction to leave the audience wanting more. CP