Sam Shepard’s ‘A Lie of the Mind’ is a rich vehicle for BU Theatre Department

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

A capable ensemble cast of eight occupies the Watters Theatre stage for the Binghamton University Theatre department’s production of A Lie of the Mind.

Sam Shepard’s three-act psychological drama provides a great vehicle for the acting talents of its cast, and it has more laughs than I expected for a story of two seriously damaged families.

Thinking that he’s killed his young, beautiful wife, Beth, Jake is driven to a kind of rage and fear that is so consuming that he must be reined in and brought back to rational behavior by his mother, sister and brother. They have their work cut out for them.

As the off-the-rails Jake, Jeff Tagliaferro is intense and physical. His rendering of an attack of vertigo even made me dizzy. 

Trey Santiago as his caring brother Frankie, is more measured in his responses to the incident that propels the rest of the play, and impacts everyone’s lives. His and Jake’s sister, Sally, wants to help, too, but no good deed goes unpunished.  Her issues with their mother, Lorraine, make her input difficult, if not impossible.

Jake’s treatment of Sally (Marisa Cartusciello) is creepy with incestuous overtones, and the abuse she takes from him is realistic and frightening. This is definitely not a play for the kiddies.

Theater student Stephanie Herlihy obviously is much younger than her character, Lorraine, but belief can be suspended. She does a good job as the mother whose favoritism can’t be explained too easily. The two young men in the seats behind me were impressed with her performance. “I really like Jake’s mother,” they agreed.

No spoiler here, but we learn fairly quickly that Jake’s wife, Beth, is not dead, but certainly damaged. We follow her back home to HER parents,  after her brother, Mike, retrieves her from the hospital.

Danielle Nigro is Beth, a woman who blurred the lines between reality and fantasy even before the beating by her husband leaves her impaired. Nigro’s delivery is a little shrill, but she modulates her voice as the effect wears off, and Beth begins to heal. You really want her to recover. 

Mike does what any good brother would do for a sister he loves, despite her ability to frustrate the hell out of him. Eric Berger develops Mike’s struggles with his family’s imperfections in gradual enough increments to make his transition believable.

Mike must also deal with his mother, Meg, who is dumber than a bag of rocks, and his father, Baylor, who would rather hunt for deer than devote more than the bare minimum to his family. 

Meg is quietly played by Stephanie Moreno. This mother proves that you don’t have to be brilliant to be compassionate, and Moreno conveys that. Tom Mackin, as practical outdoorsman Baylor, gets some of the driest funny lines and looks the part, too. 

This is a show rich with opportunities for young people to exhibit their burgeoning talents as actors. It also is a showcase for the technical crew, including set designer Vicki R. Davis’ sets.  The brilliant use of Gabrielle Button’s projected images evokes time and place. A selection of set pieces left on stage allows other scenes to remain visible, although dimmed. And the snow is a nice touch.

The musical segues add to the mood, particularly Johnny Cash warbling “God’ll Cut You Down.” Good costuming by Barbara Wolfe helps, too. 

The litany of other contributors to this production is very long, but it’s clear that everyone had some fun with it.  I have to mention Patrick Dimmock and Vladislava Pakhomova, listed in the program for “prop construction.”  If you go, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

A Lie of the Mind won the NY Drama Critics’ Circle, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play. It’s not my job to critique an established play, but the show does require a little more patience than I normally have for “cautionary tales” or plays about dysfunctional families.  I shouldn’t presume to tell Shepard that I think the length of this script reveals a certain self-indulgence on his part, but it does give everyone a good chance to shine under the direction of Anne Brady.

IF YOU GO: A Lie of the Mind opened Feb. 24 and 25, then skipped a weekend because of a campus break. It returns this weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 10-12). Tickets are available from the Anderson Center box office: 777-2787 or anderson.binghamton.edu.  For information on parking, etc, visit https://www.binghamton.edu/theatre/productions/a-lie-of-the-mind.html.

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