It's not that Sam Shepard can't write a tight single-action play. Think of "Fool for Love." But in "A Lie of the Mind" at the Mark Taper Forum he's writing about two families, and that's a story that takes time to tell. Some people were fretting Wednesday night at the length of the play, as staged by Robert Woodruff--just over three hours. (Some didn't stay to fret.) They'll be interested to hear that Shepard's original New York staging went on for almost four.
That was ridiculous. This is reasonable, and worth the effort. Unlike life--which, as one of Shepard's characters observes, gets worse and worse as you go along--"A Lie of the Mind" saves its best stuff for the last act.
Never, during the first two, do you stop listening to it. "Keep the language outdoors!" one of Shepard's characters pleads, but this writer insists on dragging the language into the house and letting it claw down the living-room drapes. That's to remind everybody of what's really going on in the house. "Soon as it gets normal, we'll talk normal."
But it's possible, during those first two acts, to want less language. It's as if Shepard is tuning up his instrument, trying this theme and that, until he really hits on something.
(Speaking of music, there's a real hillbilly combo sitting to the side of the Taper stage, looking over the play's shoulder. Its function is somewhere between that of a warm-up act and a Greek chorus. The music sounds as robust as Willie Nelson's, but the words bring to mind the old border ballads about poisoned sons and grieving mothers.)
The main theme, early and late, is families. Blood families, the kind who have to take you in when you crawl back to the door. Holly Hunter plays a young woman who crawls back home to the country after she has been beaten up, to the point of brain damage, by her husband, John Diehl--who crawls back home to the city.
"Home" means the place where your parents are. (Shepard has yet to write a play about being a parent.) Hunter's folks are still together, just barely touching: James Gammon, superbly irate, and Louise Latham, superbly vague. Diehl has only his mother left (Rae Allen). It's possible that he killed his father. That's one of the things we find out about in the last act.
The link between the two tribes is Diehl's brother (Cyril O'Reilly). He shows up at Gammon's house on a peace mission and gets a bullet in the leg. This makes him a temporary member of the tribe, and the spacey Hunter falls in love with him. This does not set well with her brother, Arliss Howard.
Probably because he loves her harder than any suitor could. Sex is a live issue in this play, but it is seen more as the bait that keeps the species going than as the central question of life, which is: Who gets to sit around the family fire?
This may include those born into the tribe, but it may not. The real brother may be cast out in the darkness, in favor of the adopted one. Or he may choose the darkness for himself.
Now we are in the last part of the play, and glad we stayed. The scenes here are rich, yeasty, basic--like some crazy post-modern take on a Bible story, as in Cain and Abel. What's exciting about Shepard is that he comes to his images and his language firsthand. Like O'Neill at the end, he's writing out of his own life, but giving it the power of myth.
And without getting vague about it, which is the problem with early O'Neill. If both families in "A Lie of the Mind" are archetypes--the father-ridden one versus the fatherless one--each member is solidly there as an individual.
Woodruff's actors pick up on that. He hasn't let them dawdle (the problem with the New York production), but he has encouraged them to explore each character's private soundtrack. As in Chekhov and in "Long Day's Journey," they talk past each other nearly all the time.
Hunter, most obviously. Being brain-damaged, she has forgotten the codes by which we disguise self-absorption. Whatever comes down the stream comes out, often comically, often touchingly.
(We're reminded here of the artist in the Taper's "The Traveler," reinventing language after his stroke. What we are not reminded of is Hunter's hip producer in "Broadcast News." This is an actress, not a personality.)
Louise Latham as her mother is another dreamer, lost in a private, peaceful, female place that Shepard seems to envy, just as he admires Rae Allen's rage toward men who come and go.
Shepard doesn't defend such men, but he understands the impulse, and also the decision to stay around and protect the weaklings under one's care--dammit! Gammon played the father in New York, too, but he's even funnier and fuller here, a bear whom no one would confuse with a teddy bear.
The lesser males in the play are harder to get hold of, or at least these actors don't do so: They seem yearlings, next to Gammon. But Amy Madigan's terrific as she tells Rae Allen what really happened between Diehl and his father, the night the father died.
Arias on this order aren't always good practice in a play, but Shepard is one writer who can get away with them. "A Lie of the Mind" could be 20 minutes shorter still, but it's not going to be, so bring supplies and hear it out.
The physical production is dark and on the cold side, which Woodruff seems to like his productions to be. Douglas Stein's set is a three-decker, with the top deck the most effective--a trunk highway and a telephone booth under the moon. Springsteen country. Shepard country.