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Theater Review: Otterbein’s ‘A Lie of the Mind’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: Otterbein’s ‘A Lie of the Mind’L-R: Abby Messina (as Beth) and John Michael McCall (Jake) in the Otterbein Department of Theatre & Dance production of “A Lie of The Mind.” Photo By: Mark Mineart
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I walked into Otterbein’s Campus Center Theatre for their production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, directed by Melissa Lusher, with high hopes. An Otterbein student friend single-handedly turned me onto Shepard’s writing over 20 years ago; still – even with everything that hasn’t aged well – one of the definitive American voices. It had been two years since anything was performed in their more intimate black box space; I’m still getting that good-to-be-back energy. And it was a play I’d read several times but had never gotten the chance to see performed. 

What I saw was a lot of very diligent, very hard work that I’m sorry to say never quite coheres. A Lie of the Mind in many ways feels like the summation, closing the door on the themes of Shepard’s classic work: a family in trouble, dark secrets, the pathetic endgame of male rage and frustration, and the sad realization that dreams can be poison.  

There are some stunning performances here, and individual scenes that dropped my jaw: John Michael McCall’s Jake delivering an early, suspicious rant to his brother, Isaac Steiger’s Frankie, and his final, broken shedding of the stories he’d been telling himself. The mercurial chemistry between Noah Carlin’s Baylor and Grace Guichard’s Meg, and the way Abby Messina’s Beth echoes both of them in subtle, but uncanny ways. The uneasy reconciliation between Taylor Reister’s Sally and Hanna Rose Line’s Lorraine, especially the latter’s wistful wish for “[T]hem fierce, dry winds that come out of the desert and rip the trees apart.”  

But when these elements come together, they don’t spark productively, the emotional tenor of this A Lie of the Mind feels like – with apologies to Motorhead – “Everything louder than everything else.” And in a play this long – 2 hours and 45 minutes the night I saw it, with an intermission – that much screaming turns into static. By the end of the first act, I was tired.  

L-R: Hannah Line (as Lorraine), John Michael McCall (Jake), Isaac Steiger (Frankie), and Taylor Reister (Sally) in the Otterbein Department of Theatre & Dance production of “A Lie of The Mind.” Photo By: Mark Mineart

Being in that space so early and so repeatedly, robs the third act of its volcanic power. Where Shepard turns the classic Aristotelian plot structure element of tying up every loose end, in a play full of messy digressions, into a grotesque parody, here we get the right number of laughs, but it doesn’t feel like an escalation or a twisting of the knife. When Daniel Keeling’s Mike roars that what’s happened doesn’t mean anything, as an accusation to the other characters, his blistering performance should feel like a punch in the gut instead of just underlining, just another flash bobbing in a boiling sea. 

The sets – by Dan Gray – look great, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the kind of American lives we get to see. Addie Richmond’s costumes perfectly set this both in and out of time. Sage Wuertzer’s lighting and Kitty Mader’s sound do a very good job of moving us between and through these long, undulating scenes.  

Lusher’s direction understands the physicality of the characters and uses that well, with a special aptitude for the classic Sam Shepard technique of freezing the characters, in the heat or aftermath of heightened emotion, into a beautiful painting-worth tableau. But I couldn’t quite shake the tone problems that nagged at my mind.  

The horrific subject matter of A Lie of the Mind shouldn’t be easy to watch, and it’s to this production’s credit that I couldn’t think about anything else between leaving the theater and waking up this morning to write my review, but I wish it had landed a little more definitively. 

A Lie of the Mind runs through October 30 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more information, visit otterbein.edu.

L-R: Daniel Keeling (as Mike), Abby Messina (Beth), Gracie Guichard (Meg), and Noah Carlin (Baylor) in the Otterbein Department of Theatre & Dance production of “A Lie of The Mind.” Photo By: Mark Mineart.
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