For playwright Sam Shepard, love is a clenched fist just waiting to smash your face in. That blow will probably come from a macho man whose time – just like the American West – is coming to an end. ‘A Lie of the Mind’, from 1985, is a crystallisation of Shepard’s motifs: a bruising love poem that centres on a brutally abusive married couple. Director James Hillier’s intriguing revival is haunting and unsettling; a (slightly over-extended) search for love and purpose played out against a haze of pain and regret.
We are in a remote cabin in Montana, where Beth (Alexandra Dowling) has fled to be with her family after her husband Jake (Gethin Anthony), a twitching mess of man, has nearly beaten her to death. Violence runs like a broken artery through the heart of both these families. Jake and his sister Sally prowl around the memory of their abusive alcoholic father and Beth’s family home is full of dead deer, hanging rifles and screaming conversation.
Hillier creates a bitterly romantic and eerie atmosphere. James Marples’s soulful songs, performed live, rise up between the scenes, hopeful but broken. A neon moon hangs above designer Rebecca Brower’s expressive set and two family homes transform – all too easily – into desolate open landscapes.
The compassionate moments hurt the most, and suggest the love these families might find, if they looked forward and to each other. Nancy Crane and John Stahl are quite brilliant as Meg’s caring mother (‘all love’) and hulk of a father, who spends more time hunting than at home. There’s a beautiful scene in which Crane tenderly massages her husband’s feet, destroyed by the hunting boots that were intended to protect. In the final scene, Stahl carefully folds the American flag with a tenderness that’ll floor you.