Some modern playwrights make you conjure up whole worlds. There's (A.R.) Gurneyville, a pleasant town with plenty of shade trees. There, WASPS with careers yearn for Faustian bargains, if only to feel something other than ennui. Or you could visit (Neil) Simonburg, where everyone kvetches entertainingly and looks for the next big break. And many, many small theater companies can't resist a stop at (Sam) Shepardton, where the trailer parks are just a forecast away from some natural disaster and everyone has a dark family secret hidden beneath the dark family secrets you already see.
HotHouse Theatre Company's production of A Lie of the Mind, one of Shepard's longer works from the mid-1980s, concerns a doomed married couple, Jake and Beth, who spend most of three acts with their loopy clans, recovering from a nervous breakdown and a vicious domestic beating, respectively. Their failed reunion comes at the close of the play, and it's a long time to wait for anticlimax.
But there's no shortage of stories and dark family secrets along the way. Jake comes from trashy folks in California's Inland Empire; Beth hails from huntin'-and-shootin' Montana. Give Shepard credit for crystallizing the militia-man mythology years before the Unabomber -- his scenes with Beth's parents and brothers are the sharpest and most genuinely comic (this being Shepard, there are a couple of gratuitous shootings in the course of the play). Directed by Milton Zoth as a gallery of grotesques, the cast at HotHouse ran through this screamfest lickety-split, which only pointed out the structural flaws, as well as the lack of compassion on the part of the playwright. Must the backstory on Jake's dead father wait until Act 3? Why must Beth's aphasia be the moment for virtually every "profundity" uttered about love and the human condition? Mike Crockett, Sally Eaton and Greg Johnston give amusing turns as Beth's folks, showing a deadpan brutality in their interaction. And Rosemary Christian, as Lorraine, Jake's Medea-ready mom, has a sharpness to her twang. Timothy J. Lord's lighting illuminates just how lost these characters are. As Jake and Beth, Marty Stanberry and Heather Ann Klinke are dazed, empty centers to their twisted clans -- the devil cashed in on the bargain long ago.
A Lie of the Mind continues through May 13.