Men and women. Can't live together. Can't live apart.
This is hardly a new subject, but playwright Sam Shepard has a more visceral take on it than most. "A Lie of the Mind," the current production at Fells Point Corner Theatre, begins with a character named Jake phoning his brother to say that, this time, he thinks he's killed his wife, Beth.
When we see Beth in the next scene she's in the hospital suffering from brain damage; Jake has killed just about everything in her except her love for him.
Much of the rest of the play consists of roughly parallel scenes that take place in Jake's mother's house in California and Beth's parents' house in Montana. Designer Jim Slivka's set situates them side by side on raised platforms with a chasm in between.
As designs go, this is fairly literal. And that's appropriate considering that, as the action progresses, Shepard engages in such overt symbolism as draping the American flag around Jake's neck.
Myth is a palpable thing in Shepard's plays. He doesn't just write about the idea of, say, the Great White Hunter in the American West; he has a character drag a deer carcass on stage.
This overt approach offers a strong stylistic suggestion to a director and cast, and when Denise M. Ratajczak and her actors follow that suggestion, the production has a stinging tone and a loony, black humor. Roger Buchanan, as Beth's father -- a rancher concerned more with hunting deer and respecting the flag than with his daughter's well-being -- epitomizes this broad, manic approach.
A similar intensity is projected by Lucia Bowes as gentle, scarred Beth; Richard Dean Stover as her irate, frustrated brother; Marge Goering as their excessively polite, excessively ditsy mother; and, at the coarse opposite extreme, Lynne R. Sigler as Jake's hard-bitten mother.
But the rest of Jake's family -- and especially Mark F. Bernier in the central role of Jake -- lacks the anger and edge necessary to convey the tension in the text. This family's tempestuous, alcoholic history is vital not only because Jake's violence is what sets the action in motion, but also because it bears some similarities to the playwright's own background.
"A Lie of the Mind" is rooted in Shepard's own hard-core reality. But if we don't believe Jake's fury is the equal but opposite manifestation of Beth's love and nurturing, then the play becomes little more than another sordid account of dysfunctional families.
Maybe that's why the audience sat stunned at the end of the performance I attended. Nobody clapped until Stover set the example. "A Lie of the Mind" has a lot to say about such large issues as: The destructive nature of love, and the shattered state of the American family. But Fells Point Corner's production makes less of Shepard's themes instead of more. In a nation where bigger is generally regarded as better, that's almost un-American.
'A Lie of the Mind'
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
When: At 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays (this Sunday's performance signed). Through Feb. 21.
Call: (410) 276-7837.