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Preview: Elm Theatre’s A Lie of the Mind 

Will Coviello on a new production of Sam Shepard’s play about two troubled families

click to enlarge Joel Derby and Becca Chapman star in A Lie of the Mind.

Photo by Liz Gore

Joel Derby and Becca Chapman star in A Lie of the Mind.

Jake can't walk from California to Montana in his underwear, draped in an American flag," says director and Elm Theatre Assistant Artistic Director Joe Furnari. "It's Sam Shepard. I told the cast, 'Don't worry about realism.' Everything you need is in the play."

  Shepard's plays (True West, Fool for Love) are full of vivid and determined characters, and A Lie of the Mind is gritty, dark and at times funny. Jake's mother Lorraine (Kristin Samuelson), who has hidden his pants, asks him how he's going to make it all the way to Montana.

  "I'll travel at night," Jake (Garrett Prejean) says before slipping out the door.

  The Elm Theatre opens its fifth season at Mid-City Theatre with its first production of a Shepard play.

  Prejean is Elm's director and also teaches the Elm Theatre's acting classes. He recently used A Lie of the Mind in one class workshop.

  "I love Shepard because he's such an actor's writer," Prejean says. "You have to listen and react in the moment."

  In A Lie of the Mind, there are two families linked by a troubled marriage and separated by a horrible act and great distance. As the drama begins, Jake is convinced his wife Beth (Becca Chapman) is dead. He beat her savagely and is unaware she's in a hospital being cared for by her brother Mike (Andrew Vaught).

  Jake retreats to his childhood bedroom in his mother's home. His mother and sister Sally (Kate Kuen) try to coax him out of his mental haze and seclusion, and it begins an examination of their lives together and the father/husband who walked out on them. Mike brings Beth to their parents' home in Montana, where a blizzard keeps them inside, with the exception of their father's ritualized dedication to hunting deer. Family members are left to wonder how they have co-existed despite the growing distance among them.

  Both families' squabbling is as fierce as it is familiar, and it's never too far from the specter of violence lurking in Jake's anger or the hunters' handy rifles. Shepard explores relationships between men and women and what people fundamentally want and accept from a partner. In the beginning of the play, Beth's head is bandaged from her injuries, and she sometimes speaks cryptically, freely bending words' meanings but is strangely insightful about those around her. As the title suggests, many relationships, healthy and unhealthy, are enabled by the lies people tell themselves.

  "(Shepard) characters act on their inclinations," Furnari says. "We as people don't always do that. They say and do things that can be vicious. He wants people to dig into that. Shepard said he doesn't want to vent his demons, he wants to shake hands with them. It's not polite theater."

  A Lie of the Mind's grisly premise (which is not shown onstage) is in line with several works Elm Theatre has presented that explore the dark side of human relationships, including Orange Flower Water and Adam Rapp's Blackbird.

  "I am a pretty happy guy; I have a sense of humor," Prejean says. "(But) I relate to these stories. I believe that could be me. There's the struggle between the right thing and the wrong thing, and 'What is the right thing?' The people living on the fringes are human beings. I want to do these types of stories."

  The Elm has produced comedies and other types of shows in addition to challenging dramas. Last year it presented the rambunctious comedy The Adventures of Butt Boy and Tigger, about two men who share exaggerated fantasies after they meet in an online chatroom.

  The Elm vacated its space on Julia Street, and that has allowed it to produce different types of shows. A Lie of the Mind has eight characters, the largest cast the Elm has used. The Julia Street space accommodated seating for 30, and by using different theaters, Elm can now schedule one large show each season.

  "We couldn't do (A Lie of the Mind) at Julia Street," Prejean says. "It limited the kind of storytelling that would work in the space. We're still an actor-based company, but we can stretch out in (cast) size and technically now."

  Mid-City Theatre has more than twice the seating capacity of Elm's former space, but the company has configured the show in a way not done at Mid-City before — sacrificing seats but highlighting the work's opposite poles and sense of distance.

  Concurrent with the New Orleans Fringe Festival in November, Elm will present Enter Your Sleep by Christina Quintana at an alternative theater space in Faubourg Marigny. The rest of its season and its acting classes will be held at Shadowbox Theatre. The schedule includes its now annual holiday show of offbeat readings and stories and a new one-act play festival, featuring works by company members and new writers.

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