Sunday, May 3, 2015

All Kinds of Crazy

If you're going to spend an evening experiencing family dysfunction, best to eat first.

But, honestly, nothing could have prepared me for such a visceral experience.

My date and I met at Bistro 27, not at the appointed time (I'd already e-mailed him to move it back 15 minutes) and not at the rescheduled time (I was running late after a last minute errand) but a mere 75 minutes before curtain time.

Luckily, with the November Theater a half block away, the Bistro 27 staff are pros at ensuring customers make their play on time and we sailed through duck confit barbecue sliders (on housemade biscuits, yum) with beets and Brie, a shrimp, avocado and red pepper salad over greens, the bistro steak and a chocolate torte and were picking up our tickets at will call by 7:55.

I think that's what the theatrical community calls good timing.

Cadence Theater Company is producing Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," a play neither of us knew a thing about. While I usually prefer it that way, my date is known to research and tell all at dinner. Today he'd been subsumed with yard work and brought no factoids to the table.

Just as well. Turns out it was the sort of play you need to experience not bone up on.

The simple wooden set was topped by a platform on which three musicians - keyboards, guitar, fiddle - performed to begin and then sometimes during scenes. It lent a strong sense of location to the story.

At the center of the play were Jake and Beth, both played to dysfunctional perfection by Landon Nagel and McLean Jesse, a married couple in a bad place. Jake has beaten up Beth so badly he assumes he's killed her.

From there, they spiral in different and yet the same directions, each back to their respective crazy (because aren't they all?) families. Home is good because everybody loves you there, or at least accepts you.

But home is also where everyone reverts to long-circumscribed roles, meaning adult children often act and are treated more like their youthful selves. Mothers fret over grown children's problems and siblings maintain long-held secrets.

Of course, in Sam Shepard's world, this happens in the heartland (Idaho, Montana and, most surprisingly, southern California) and the dialog reflects that with phrases such as "you bet your bippy," "darn tootin" and other colloquialisms. "You change streams faster than a trout in heat," Beth's Dad, Baylor, says.

Besides terrific source material, the play boasts a strong and vibrant cast, a necessity of sorts because there is no one main character. Everyone has a story line, everyone is seriously messed up in one way or another, everyone hurts.

When Baylor mistakes Jake's brother for a deer and shots him through the leg, he becomes a virtual prisoner in their house after a blizzard begins. With a bloody hole in his leg and in intense pain, Alexander Sapp as Frankie becomes immobilized on their couch, a witness to another family's major dysfunction.

If you think it's hard to deal with your own family's issues, try having a front row seat for someone else's. No thank you.

His reaction mirrored the audiences' because as the lengthy play - three hours - unfolded, the absurdity of all these relationships and reactions became obvious.

Who acts like that? Oh, that's right, my family. Your family. Everyone's family.

The two mothers couldn't have been more different and yet were just as damaged, just in different ways. Jake's mother Lorraine was bitter after her alcoholic husband (after all, it is a Sam Shepard play) abandons the family. Beth's mother is the obsequious wife, obeying her bully of a husband out of habit rather than love and reminding everyone to stop screaming.

This wasn't a play with a slow build to a big finish, rather it exploded every step of the way as damaged people tried to go about their daily lives.

We've all known mothers who dote on problem sons or blustery old-school fathers who expect the entire household to do their bidding. And sadly, we all know of battered women willing to return to their abuser.

Once again, Cadence has hit it out of the park with a play that will leave its audiences bowled over with the talent onstage and thinking long and hard about the issues raised. The play may have been written in 1986, but the struggles of dealing with family and developing a sense of self outside it are timeless.

I'm guessing that's why I saw so many theater people at the show tonight.

During a scene where Beth's brother Mike has just shot a deer, he comes onstage with a half a dead deer. He's taken the antlers for himself and brought the rest of the animal for his father to clean and dress for meat.

When the lights came up at intermission, the woman near me, herself the artistic director at another theater company, turned to her date and observed dryly, "At least now I know where I can find half a dead deer if I need one."

Darn tootin'. We all take something different from a Sam Shepard play.

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