Sam Sherpard's A Lie of the Mind received adulatory reviews when it was first seen here in 1986. But in this revival by Wilson Milam at the Donmar, it feels like a diagrammatic attempt to write the Great American Play, importing into the dramatist's characteristic territory – the wide open spaces with their violent, white trash – the big themes tackled by his canonical forebears. From Eugene O'Neill, there's the idea of the bad seed or dynastic "curse" and the drunken, inescapable Oedipal competition; while the brain-damaged heroine puts you in mind of those Tennessee Williams characters that were inspired by his love for his lobotomised sister, Rose. The piece comes across as an exercise in great-playwriting-by-numbers.
The focus is on two dysfunctional families linked by a failed marriage. The son of an alcoholic and now deceased US Air Force pilot who abandoned his family, jealous Jake has battered his wife, Beth so viciously that sections of her mind have gone missing. Soon, Jake is back home in his boyhood bed in Southern California, being spoon-fed by his almost incestuously possessive mother. Simultaneously, on the other half of the split-stage, Beth is being cared for in the snowy backwoods of Montana by her parents: a brutish, deer-hunting father and his vague, batty wife.
While Jake still yearns for Beth and fears that he will die without her, his saner brother Frankie travels to Montana to discover what really happened. It's his tragi-comic misfortune, in a play full of mix-ups, to be mistaken for a deer and shot in the leg. There's a wild, screwy humour in the situation that develops, with an immobilised, pain-racked Frankie in a blizzard-bound house at the mercy of a brain-damaged woman who makes up to him, wearing her father's shirt, and proposing a dotty gender-swap relationship: "You love my shirt. This shirt is a man to you. You are my beautiful woman. You lie down."
But neither the comedy, nor the unearned grace of the conclusion, where Jake arrives and surrenders Beth to his gentler sibling, can camouflage the neanderthal conservatism of the play's sexual politics. Jake's attack on his wife, Shepard suggests, sprang from the violence of his love. Women need "the other": men don't know what they need and die alone. For all its attempts to find a balance between these two "opposite animals", the play half-romanticises the alleged difference, with the chauvinist Montana rancher redeemed by his reverence for the American flag.
Andy Serkis is brilliantly keyed-up and desperate as Jake and Anna Calder-Marshall isboth hilarious and haunting as Beth's mentally distrait mother. But Sinead Cusack looks too young and clear-headed to convince as the Californian matriarch, while Catherine McCormack's over-played Beth fails to reconcile you to the embarrassing archness of the character's mangled wisdom. On this viewing, A Lie of the Mind is a drama that has rapidly dated.
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