In another excellent Playwrights Horizons production, director Carolyn Cantor and playwright Amy Herzog create a beautiful mood piece about memory from Herzog’s latest play, The Great God Pan. Though essentially a small domestic drama, Cantor and Herzog and an accomplished cast collaborate to make each intimate moment of emotional and historical ambiguity resonate with questions that extend way beyond the lives at stake on stage: What do we remember and why? What’s the difference between dementia and a “bad memory”? How do the stories we tell ourselves about our lives become the fabric of who we actually are? And can those stories be radically changed in middle age?
Jamie is 32, living in New York with Paige, his girlfriend of six years, a former professional dancer working hard on a counseling degree that will fundamentally remake her life. She specializes in advising young women with eating disorders. Jamie’s parents, Cathy and Doug, whom he rarely sees, live in Highland Park, New Jersey—just an hour away but emotionally much more distant because for unclear reasons, Jamie holds them at arms-length.
These already precarious relationships unravel when Jamie is sought out by Frank, a childhood friend who brings stories about their past that Jamie can’t assimilate. Frank comes to Jamie for evidence against Frank’s father, Dennis, whom he’s accusing of sexual abuse. In fact, Frank reaches out to Jamie because in a mediation session with the family priest, Dennis has actually admitted that he touched Jamie. But Jamie—horrified and obviously terrified—says he doesn’t remember.
Herzog hinges her play on this scene and this question. Has Jamie built his adult life on a foundation of denial? Does this uncovered history, a quarter-century old, explain Jamie’s problems with intimacy and his recent sexual dysfunction with Paige, whose just-announced pregnancy he can’t quite accept or celebrate?
Though each scene addresses a crucial piece of the puzzle Jamie’s life has become, the ambiguous, unsatisfying answers are less important than watching a now utterly tilted man try to fathom a new story of his life. In small, jewel-like scenes, Herzog assigns dialogue to pairs of characters: Jamie and Frank, Jamie and Paige, Jamie and Cathy, Jamie and Doug, Jamie and Polly, the woman who babysat Jamie and Frank when the abuse allegedly took place. Though the scenes address the intimacies of a joint past or present, Jamie either constitutionally or emotionally isn’t capable of really digging into the facts or textures of what might have been the truth. He can remember the alleged abuse as little as he can recall the poem Polly recited to Jamie and Frank when she took them to play by the creek.
The set (beautifully designed by Mark Wendland, with lighting by Japhy Weideman) is a flat wall that looms mostly downstage, decorated with paint and light reminiscent of green leaves in a woodsy setting. As the scenes change, portions of this wall move in and out, offering square or rectangular boxes that serve as chairs or tables, or that evoke offices or family rooms.
The lack of visual specificity lets you focus on the characters, whose three-dimensionality (and vulnerability) is palpable and sometimes breathtaking. Though they act simply, with clarity that often allows their characters’ quandaries challenge your own, each performer is understated but powerful. Each character has a small but important emotional arc that underscores Jamie’s inability to make choices that will further his own adulthood. Whether or not he was sexually abused, he seems caught, stuck and static as others move and change around him. Has Frank’s story provided new reasons for Jamie’s stalled life?
Herzog writes with calculated indirection, so that a scene has often progressed for a bit before it’s clear what exactly is at stake. She front-loads a scene’s emotional quotient before she gets to its narrative particulars, nicely evoking how much actually isn’t said in intimate relationships. But when the tension between Jamie and Paige prompts them to lash out at one another, in a scene that makes you cringe with its desperate cruelty, the play suggests that we don’t say things to protect one another from our own darkness, and that leaving our worst thoughts unsaid is perhaps the kindest gesture. That Frank comes with so much to say threatens every fiber of Jamie’s existence.
Frank, whom the others suggest was always a difficult, anxious kid, remembers most distinctly Polly teaching him and Jamie to notice the signs of spring, which Jamie can’t recall at all. And in fact, when Jamie reminds Polly about Frank’s memory, she shrugs it off, saying that she made everything up as she went along to keep the boys amused. But through the course of the play, Jamie does come to remember that on their trips to the creek with Polly, she used to recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem about the Great God Pan, with its references to human-god-monster hybrids and horror hidden in the reeds. Jamie finally does remember a few ambiguous, portentous lines from the poem at the play’s end, which he and Frank recite in syncopated, halting recollection.
The Great God Pan is spare and concise, using its minimalism to address an ambiguous history too horrible to imagine. Cantor nicely calibrates the production and does justice to an excellent cast. Jeremy Strong plays Jamie with a moving mixture of incredulity and recognition. Cantor often leaves him on stage between scenes, moving the oblique, suggestive set around him while other characters move on and off, and into and out of their scenes. Jamie’s continual presence and near immobility illustrates his own peculiar lack of agency.
Strong’s vaguely feminine masculinity also helps evoke Jamie’s tentative relation to his own life. His face is soft and his lips fleshy, his stature is small, and his hair just hints at gray, making him at once handsome and nondescript. That Jamie is an investigative journalist implies he’s adept at detective work that allows him to fade into the background of his own quests, much as he does in this inquiry into his own history.
Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman capture the desperation of parents suddenly terrified that they put their child in harm’s way and their eagerness to be prematurely reassured that Jamie is fine. Their willingness to continue shirking their responsibility might explain Jamie’s distance from his family. The emotional stuttering between him and his parents is beautifully captured in Baker, Friedman, and Strong’s rendition.
Keith Nobbs brings to Frank, who’s now a gay massage therapist, a piercing bravery, as his excessively adorned “queer”-wear seems like armor meant to gird him against how stricken he remains. (Kaye Voyce designed the costumes.) The character could be played as obnoxious and self-righteous while he pursues his vengeance against his father. Instead, Nobbs plays Frank as wounded and kind, tentative but determined, and insists on his humanity.
Likewise, Sarah Goldberg, as Paige, brings convincing concern to a woman who expected to rebuild her life with Jamie and can’t fathom his emotional recalcitrance. She tries to help herself by helping others, but she’s stymied at every turn, by Jamie and by her patient, Joelle, a young anorexic (nicely played by Erin Wilhelmi), who’s terrified that Paige might actually be curing her.
The Great God Pan signals a queasy suspense throughout its taut 70 minutes without necessarily resolving anything about the characters’ pasts or their futures. Herzog and Cantor pull us inexorably along, inviting us to take stock of the stories we tell ourselves about who we’ve been and how they add up to who we are.
The Feminist Spectator
The Great God Pan, Playwrights Horizons, New York.