Carradine climbs deep inside the mind of Shepard



Revival contemplates life ‘as a waking sleep’

John Carradine, blessed be his name, is best remembered for one searing performance in just one memorable Hollywood motion picture, but according to his son Keith “he was actually in 512 movies before he passed away.”

“He was very proud when he reached five hundred,” says actor Keith Carradine, who has been in a good many movies in his own right, “and he used to joke that the only person who’d been in more was Donald Crisp, but that a lot of Crisp’s pictures were two-reelers that didn’t count.”

The role that John Carradine can forever lay claim to was, of course, that of the gaunt, radical, Christlike roadside preacher in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

It just so happens that Baylor, the cantankerous old rancher played by Keith Carradine in the current Off-Broadway rebirth of Sam Shepard’s 1985 “A Lie of the Mind,” cusses out the family into which his daughter has foolishly married as a “Bunch a’ Oakies.” I don’t know whether the superfluous “a” in there (as the script has it) is intentional or sheer misspelling, but the sound is Steinbeckian in any case.

The “bunch a’ Oakies” include Jake (Alessandro Nivola), who has beaten Baylor’s daughter Beth literally half to death; Jake’s more sensitive, peace-seeking brother Frankie (Josh Hamilton); and Jake and Frankie’s weirdo earthy mother, Lorraine (Karen Young).

On the other side, up there 500 miles north in Billings, Montana, are Baylor (Mr. Carradine), his weirdo wife Meg (Laurie Metcalf), their milktoast-turned-ferocious son Mike (Frank Whaley), their no-nonsense daughter Sally (Maggie Siff), and their looney-tunes daughter Beth (Marin Ireland).

Baylor’s all-consuming concern through all this is getting two mules to market on time. He is also a hunter, and this is deer season. When he gets back home and out in the woods with his trusty rifle, he mistakenly plugs a fellow homosapien rather than a deer.

“No, I’ve never shot a deer,” says Keith Carradine. “I’m not a hunter. I’ve gone fishing. I went bird-hunting once and shot a quail.”

The accidental victim is brutal Jake’s milder brother Frankie, who has come all this way to apologize for the beating-up of Beth. For his pains he has now been shot through the thigh, the bullet just missing several more vital parts. He is dragged in chez Baylor and put up on a couch.

There then ensues an almost endless tug-of-war between Baylor and Frankie over an old hunk of blanket. Indeed, to a dispassionate auditor there is enough repetition in “A Lie of the Mind” to go round — and round again, and again. Even the stage directions are, in that script, endlessly repetitive.

Be that as it may, this is the first new Off-Broadway look at “A Lie of the Mind” — a New Group production — since the original, 25 years ago at the now defunct Promenade.

Karen Young, the Meg of this one, was daughter Sally in that one. Its stars were Harvey Keitel, Aidan Quinn, Geraldine Page, Amanda Plummer. The director was playwright Sam Shepard himself. The director this time is Ethan Hawke, and Keith Carradine feels grateful to be in it.

He was at home in Los Angeles when the call came in late December. Carradine had never seen or read the play, but he was quick tosay Yes, I’ll do it.’

“Very challenging material,” he says now. “Baylor was new territory for me, and it wasn’t obvious how to play it. But, peripherally, I’ve known ranchers in my life. I had a place in Colorado for a time, and I’ve dealt with them. Had a sense of what that life — their life — was about.

“Yes, they hunt and fish. It’s their vocation and their recreation. They make a life outdoors and they recreate outdoors.”

Asinine question, Mr. Carradine: What is this play telling us?

“It’s my understanding that Sam had recently lost his father when he wrote it, and was studying a particular form of philosophy. [Shepard’s father had in fact died a year earlier, 1984]

“Most of us,” the actor specifies, “live life as a waking sleep. To Sam [who had come to some rehearsals of this new production], there is a blurred line between these two states, awake and asleep. We put one foot in front of the other without awareness of what we’re doing.

‘What does it mean to be fully conscious — or not — looking through the eyes of these two dysfunctional American families.” He pauses, then throws in: “The American ethos.”

The only member of the cast with whom Carradine has previously worked is Frank Whaley, who plays Baylor’s son Mike, a dual-personality type all on his own. “We did ‘Love, Clyde,’ a little television movie, five or so years ago.”

If the Baylor of “A Lie of the Mind” is quite a bit crazy, the Will Rogers of Broadway’s 1991 “Will Rogers Follies” was an eminently sensible American truth-teller.

“That was fun“ the actor/singer says of his performance as the homespun lariat-swinger and ironist who died in 1935, fourteen years before Keith Carradine was born. “The best of the best,” he says of that show’s creative team: Peter Stone, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green.

What was perhaps less than fun for Carradine was learning how to spin that rope.

“That took some time. Worked at it many, many hours, days, weeks, months.”

A somewhat easier memorable experience, for Keith, had been a stint in the original Broadway production of the “Hair” that had first flowered at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater down on Lafayette Street.

“Biltmore Theatre, March 1969,” he volunteers without being asked.

You seem to have that date down pat, an interviewer remarks.

“Oh yeah. Certain things one doesn’t forget.”

Yes, this New Yorker replies. And I am not about to forget the night your father, back in the 1950s, somehow showed up at my domicile, a skylight studio on West 11th Street, plopped himself down in a leather sling chair, asked for a bottle of scotch, and said the premises reminded him of “La Bohéme.”

I’ don’t know much about “La Boheme,” I’d informed the unexpected guest.

“What!” he’d exclaimed, even shouted. “You claim to call yourself a writer, an intellectual, but you don’t know ‘La Boheme?’” And then John Carradine, Casy the preacher to the Okies, for my edification spoke and sang his way through every scene and every aria of Puccini’s timeless opera.

“Well,” said an unfazed Keith Carradine, “my father was profoundly literate, a great opera buff, and sort of a Victorian patriarch. I hope you had fun.”

Yes I did, Mr. Baylor. Yes I surely did.