Memo to actress Gina Alvarado:
Gina, we hear that your mesmerizing performance as a brain-damaged young wife in Rep Stage's production of A Lie of the Mind is your Maryland debut, so we want to ask you a few questions.
Have you tried the crab cakes yet? They're delicious. And how about that Chesapeake Bay? Beautiful, isn't it? Finally, how do you like the climate? Unfortunately, it's winter, and the fruit trees aren't in bloom. But just wait until spring.
We want to make absolutely sure that you're happy and comfortable in the Free State so we can enjoy your talents for years to come.
If this praise for one performer seems lavish, we're not intending to slight the other seven actors. Mostly, they're terrific. Director Xerxes Mehta has mounted a high-proof production of Sam Shepard's bleak comedy about two dysfunctional families that leaves the audience reeling. Some of us might wake up the next morning with a slight emotional hangover, but bored we are not.
The play opens with a frantic, middle-of-the-night phone call from Jake to his brother, Frankie. Jake has savagely beaten his wife, Beth, and is sure that he has killed her. In the next scene, we find Beth in her hospital bed, unable to walk or speak, but very much alive. For the remainder of the play, husband and wife retreat to the bosoms of the crazy families in which they grew up.
So persuasive are the performances that it's only after the curtain call that the huge hole in Shepard's premise becomes apparent. The drama is predicated on the unrealistic assumption that Beth's beating is never reported to the police. Surely Beth's brother, Mike, who despises Jake, or the hospital staff would call the cops, and Jake would immediately be arrested. But then there would be no play.
Mehta and set designer Elena Zlotescu assign each half of the stage to a different world. Stage right is Jake's boyhood room, and opposite that is Beth's world - first her hospital bed and then her childhood home.
Valerie Leonard delivers a no-holds-barred performance as Jake's mother, Lorraine, who sees in her son the reincarnation of the husband who abandoned her. Each of Leonard's words and each gesture register with the impact of a shotgun blast. Natasha Staley is a tough delight as Jake's sister, Sally, who appears at first to be saner than either her mother or brother, but who has her own agenda.
Dan Manning provides an incisive portrait of Beth's emotionally removed father, Baylor, who is childishly dependent on the family that he remorselessly bullies.
There are only two performances that challenge the audience's ability to suspend belief.
Maureen Kerrigan is a skilled actress, and there is not a single thing wrong with her delivery or demeanor. Yet she somehow exudes a competence and intelligence that undermines her character, Meg, who is warm-hearted, helpless and dim.
Actor Tim Getman is more problematic as the pathetic, brutal Jake. Getman seems nothing like Jake, and perhaps as a result, he overcompensates. To express bewilderment, Getman purses his mouth like a fish in an aquarium gobbling food, and to express tension, he drums his fingers as though playing the flute. The gestures are amplified but hollow.
In contrast, Alvarado seamlessly glides through the stages of Beth's recovery, from her character's initial inability to take a step to jumping on a chair; from uttering only grunts to clearly articulating thoughts that don't always make sense.
At all stages of Beth's impairment, her personality shines through. Alvarado conveys Beth's frustration at her own limitations, but also her charm and sense of humor. It is a complex, layered, rich performance.
Gina, have another crab cake.
if you go
A Lie of the Mind runs through March 1 in Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 410-772-4900 or go to repstage.org.