SAM SHEPARD already had “Buried Child,” “True West” and other plays about dysfunctional families to his credit in 1985, when he directed the premiere of his ensemble drama “A Lie of the Mind,” which depicts two families torn by violence and resentments. Starring Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Page, Amanda Plummer and Aidan Quinn, the production ran off Broadway for six months and won the Drama Desk Award for best play, among other honors.
This winter the actor Ethan Hawke is directing the first major New York revival, now in previews. And he has assembled eight actors with potent range. The veterans Keith Carradine and Laurie Metcalf play husband and wife, and Marin Ireland and Frank Whaley two admired New York theater actors are their children. The other family includes four familiar faces: Josh Hamilton (“Proof” and “The Coast of Utopia” onstage), Alessandro Nivola (the film “Junebug”), Maggie Siff (TV’s “Mad Men”) and Karen Young, a character actor (“The Sopranos”) who appeared in the original production as the daughter of her current character. The two families are linked by the marriage of Ms. Ireland’s Beth, whose savage beating by her unstable husband, Mr. Nivola’s Jake, sets off the action of the play.
After a day of rehearsals this month, the cast and Mr. Hawke gathered to talk about reviving a Shepard classic, working as an ensemble and collaborating with a director who is a fellow actor. The discussion was moderated by Patrick Healy, theater reporter for The New York Times. Here are excerpts.
Q. In 1985 Frank Rich, the theater critic for The New York Times, heralded “A Lie of the Mind” as a “rending and hilarious reverie” and one of the most compelling plays so far that decade. Since then we’ve seen a lot of plays about familial meltdowns. What drew you to these two families?
ETHAN HAWKE I moved to New York in ’88, and the air was still very much alive with people talking about the ’85 production. That was an “actors’ actor” production. People were always doing scenes from this play in acting class. I loved the play, and I just hoped that nobody would revive it until I was old enough to direct it. I was drawn to its incredibly weird juxtaposition of humor and mysticism, the fine line in the play between darkness and light.
KEITH CARRADINE Well, first things first: I was asked to join the ensemble. At this point in my life I tend to go where I’m invited. Sam and I are close in age, and I always felt that the complicated, dark world that he occupies as a playwright was the world in which I tend to fit. My brother David and I at one point flirted with playing the brothers in “True West.” So being in a Shepard play feels long overdue to me.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA I felt like my pectoral muscles and my biceps muscles were considerably more impressive than Harvey Keitel’s, and I pretty much want the world to know that. [Laughter.] Seriously, when I read this play, I was fascinated to discover how Sam Shepard was a kind of descendant of the Beat poets, Bob Dylan, Greenwich Village in the ’60s and ’70s. There’s so much in this play that works on a purely visceral level that recalls the Beats. Sam has those poets and downtown reprobates in his blood. I wanted to explore that.
Q. What sort of alchemy needs to happen to mount a great revival of a complex ensemble drama?
HAWKE If life has taught me anything, things like a great production are out of your control. My grandfather used to say luck is the residue of design. The play asks eight people to have a special chemistry, and that doesn’t happen by staying up all night to work on our characters. It’s about us searching for the truth in the writing, discovering together how these two families collide.
MARIN IRELAND One trap with any iconic writer is that you think you know the tone of the play and motives of the characters. Part of our job is to look for the opposite in any moment. For me, in Beth’s first scenes, she is in the hospital after the beating by Jake, all bandaged up. But I was surprised by how much it seemed like Beth was fighting, like she was in an emergency and had to get out of the hospital right away. That felt like the right way to play her.
LAURIE METCALF The two things that pop immediately in Sam’s plays are the violence and the insane humor, but when you go deeper, it’s not at all just that. It’s easy to look at the strangeness of his work, and it’s a trap. Going deeper into the play is one big way that we’re all getting on the same page as a cast.
Q. Ethan, as an actor yourself, how do you go about directing an ensemble of so many other veteran actors?
FRANK WHALEY Videotaping us in the shower. [Laughter.]
HAWKE The funny thing is, the big danger for actors directing other actors is that you want everybody to do it like you would do it. I try to show some restraint. I don’t always. But when I’m acting, I often want to say to the director: “Just let me do it five times, and that terrific idea you have? I’ll find it all by myself. And it’ll be my idea, and I’ll feel solid about it.” A lot of times good actors will make sense out of something if you let them do it 15 times. For actors to succeed they need to really own their parts.