A lie told often enough

Dysfunction abounds in the Bug’s latest

Verl Hite

Back in the aughts, the Bug Theatre Company consistently produced exciting, affecting theatre of a kind not commonly seen elsewhere. Its hauntingly beautiful 2003 production of Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues brought tears to my eyes. Its take on David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries, which starred the inimitable Gary Culig and ran for 10 years, remains my single favorite iteration of that joyously cranky holiday classic.

Some years ago, the Bug Theatre Company stopped producing full seasons, opting instead to focus on periodic productions like the monthly open stage spectacle known as Freak Train and the nearly annual Halloween tradition that is Night of the Living Dead. While these endeavors have been well received, I’ve missed the magic the full-time theatre company frequently conjured.

So when I learned that the Bug Theatre Company was edging back toward a more full-time, full season model, I was thrilled beyond measure. The play with which it has begun this process, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, will please Shepard aficionados with a strong production, but the inherent nature of the script is unlikely to bring non-fans or newcomers into the Bug fold.

A Lie of the Mind presents two extremely dysfunctional families in the midst of a crisis. The first clan consists of widowed mother, Lorraine (Libby Rife), and her adult children, Sally (Mary Kay Riley), Frankie (Paul Jaquith) and Jake (Chris Bleau). The second one is led by patriarch Baylor (Dell Dominik) who lords over wife Meg (Darcy Kennedy), son Mike (Sam Gilstrap) and daughter Beth (Haley Johnson) like the pint-sized king of a clapboard castle.

Jake and Beth are married, and Jake is an inveterate spousal abuser. The play opens immediately after Jake has beaten Beth into a bloody, brain-damaged pulp. Mistakenly — and unaccountably — thinking that Beth is dead, Jake slinks back to his childhood home. After being released from the hospital, Beth returns to her parents’ house to convalesce. As an example of A Lie of the Mind’s many lapses in logic, apparently police do not exist in the universe of the play, because no one from either family nor anyone at the hospital thinks to involve them in the initial beating or a subsequent shooting.

The Bug Theatre Company dives head first into A Lie of the Mind and, for good or ill, embraces every aspect of it. The set, created by Kenn Penn, does the utmost with the Bug’s relatively small stage. A row of utility poles standing sentry behind the action places the play squarely in Shepard’s West, and each pole serves as a totem of loneliness. The slanted, bifurcated stage design persistently reinforces the off-kilter nature of the damaged characters and helps to demark each family’s territory.

Beth is the heart and soul of A Lie of the Mind, and Haley Johnson is more than up to the task. Johnson’s efforts altering her speech patterns and body language to convey Beth’s brain damage rises to potentially award-worthy status. As Jake’s toxic, smothering mother, Libby Rife delivers some extremely challenging lines with ease. Few actresses could so bluntly blame the victim of horrific domestic violence and make the remark sound this nefariously natural.

The lighting and sound work by Charles Cobb is as understated as it is effective. Often, it is his lighting choices as much as the set or blocking that provide a sense of place from scene to scene. And his decision to include a few bars of “16 Horsepower” at one point during the show is a welcome surprise.

Director Verl Hite has helmed just two plays, Angel City and A Lie of the Mind, both by Sam Shepard. It’s clear that Shepard speaks to Hite, who seems to resonate with the playwright’s bleak worldview. His casting and staging choices amplify the clashes between realism and absurdity that occur throughout the play. Hite appears to have a sure directing hand. I hope to have the opportunity to see what he could do with something non-Shepard-ian in the future.

At more than two and a half hours (mercifully slimmed down from its original four hour running time), A Lie of the Mind will either be considered an endurance test or an operatic ode to anomie depending entirely on the viewer’s opinion of Shepard’s source material. The play really is that divisive — a hallmark of Shepard’s work. The Bug Theatre Company’s presentation of it, however, deserves nothing but praise, and I hope that it signals the resurgence of one of the best theatre companies along the Front Range.

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