"She's not gonna pull outta this one," Jake yells frantically to his brother through a pay phone receiver. "She's dead."
The phone call starts Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, which The Elm Theater is running at Mid-City Theatre. Jake (Garrett Prejean) has severely beaten his wife Beth (Becca Chapman) in a fit of jealous rage. But Beth is not dead. She's badly injured and her brother Mike (Andrew Vaught) is helping care for her in a hospital. The drama spares the viewer from watching the horrific event, but the tension only increases as Beth tries to heal.
Chapman delivers a standout performance. Beth wakes up in a hospital and believes she is a "zombie" because she is so bandaged. She speaks in clipped sentences, frequently dropping words and letting her thoughts wander. It's heartbreaking to watch her struggle to communicate, but Chapman gives Beth complexity, pride and determination.
Lie follows a fairly linear narrative, though Shepard is not a realist and sometimes delves into the absurd. The subject matter is extremely disturbing, but the show triumphs in the exploration of two families caught in cycles of violence.
Leah Farrelly's set places the audience between the two spheres of action. The main stage is Beth's domain; it's where we see her in the hospital and later her parents' house. At the back of the Mid-City space is where Jake and his family interact on a smaller stage. The families exist at different poles and struggle with their own histories.
When Jake's mother Lorraine (Kristin Samuelson) hears of Jake's assault, she calls Beth a "bimbo" and says she deserved the beating. Lorraine is bitter. Her wandering alcoholic husband left her, and she ignores the reality of her son's behavior. Samuelson's unsettling intensity makes Lorraine a terror. She tries to convince Jake to stay in his childhood bedroom.
Though Jake has nearly killed his wife, he suffers a breakdown and believes he will die without her. His brother Frankie (Joel Derby) tries to help him, but it's to no use. Jake has no redeeming qualities, and Prejean does an excellent job embodying the psychotic husband.
While Lorraine smothers her son, Beth's father Baylor (Roger Magendie) is a gruff, broad-shouldered man who controls his family by belittling them. Baylor is a hunter, and Magendie is imposing, his voice tinged with violence. He never physically challenges anybody, but he seems like he could.
None of the couple's parents recognize how their actions affected their children's desire — or predilections to recreate vicious patterns. The show's traumas push each character toward a breaking point.
A Lie of the Mind's story is unnerving, but Elm Theatre's excellent acting and set design make this a rewarding production.