Saturday, January 12, 2013

"The Great God Pan" - A Powerful Tale about an Uncomfortable Subject

By Judd Hollander

Selective childhood memories and hints of something horrible are explored in Amy Herzog's riveting drama The Great God Pan, now at Playwrights Horizons. 

Jamie (Jeremy Strong) leads a relatively uneventful life. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, has a decent relationship with his live-in therapist girlfriend Paige (Sarah Goldberg), and a cordial one with his New Jersey parents Cathy (Becky Ann Baker) and Doug (Peter Friedman). However his mostly stable existence is completely upended when he meets Frank (Keith Nobbs), a childhood friend whom he hasn't seen in more than 20 years. Frank reveals he was sexually abused by his father when he was very young, and there's the possibility his dad also molested other children during that period, including Jamie. An encounter Jaime, who would have been about five years old at the time, has absolutely no recollection of.

It's this not knowing that forms the crux of the play as Jamie tries to reconstruct memories, feelings and images from that long ago time - such as a scratchy couch - and then have them confirmed by those who were there. People such as his parents, or Polly (Joyce Van Patten), Jamie and Frank's childhood babysitter. While Jamie is attempting to find out if he was actually abused, the emotional stain of such a possibility causes his life to unravel.

Presenting a tightly written story, Herzog adds to the tension by tossing in numerous elements of guilt among the characters, all of which Jamie is forced to confront in his search. Such as from Doug and Cathy who in hindsight were more concerned about their own problems then that of the children involved; and who may have inadvertently put their son in harm's way. There's also Polly who, while she may have thought Frank's dad a bit strange, never considered him capable of what he stands accused of and more importantly, what he has admitted. Things don't get any easier for Jamie when Paige tells him he's going to be a father, a situation he finds himself completely unable to deal with at the current moment.

Strong is perfect as the angst-ridden Jamie. An everyman who never knows more than the audience, he ends up becoming a de facto victim through association rather than fact. In the hands of Strong, Herzog and director Carolyn Canter, Jamie is presented as a totally conflicted soul, one who eventually explodes with rage and anger as he's forced to reevaluate everything and everyone he knew through the prism of these new potential experiences.

Nobbs is deceptively powerful as Frank, someone who appears only briefly in the play, yet his presence is eventually felt by all. In a particularly deft bit of acting, Nobbs is able to instantly turn Frank from a seemingly perennial slacker to a someone who immediately elicits sympathy and compassion.

Goldberg works well as Paige, the actress having the most difficult job in the piece in terms of making her character fit into the story. Not a part of Jamie or Frank's past and initially kept in the dark about this whole situation, Paige finds Jamie becoming more and more distant without knowing the reason why. Yet at the same time she must also think of her own needs and those of her unborn child before deciding if she wants to stay with in her current relationship. 

Baker and Friedman are good as the concerned, if somewhat stereotypical parents, with the news of what may have gone on forcing them to reconsider their relationship with their son. Van Patten is compelling as Polly, a woman struggling with dementia and trying desperately to pierce an ever-growing veil of confusion in order to be able to give both Frank and Jamie the answers they seek. Rounding out the cast is Erin Wilhelmi who turns in an excellent performance as one of Paige's patients; a young woman battling an eating disorder and who, despite Paige's best efforts, may be falling off the recovery wagon.

Cantor's direction is picture perfect, keeping Jamie's search for the truth at the forefront of the tale and allowing the tension to slowly build as Jamie emotionally bottoms out. Jamie's scenes with Frank, which bookend the play, are particularly moving, the two characters playing off each other quite well. The only pacing problem occurs in Goldberg's scenes with Wilhelmi. While those moments are certainly compelling, they also feel somewhat disjointed as they're not part of the main thrust of the play.

Mark Wendland's sets are nicely appropriate, as is the lighting by Japhy Wiedeman, the latter being especially effective in the final scene. Costumes by Kate Voyce are okay.

Tapping into the fear of the unknown and the terror of discovering a dark truth, The Great God Pan is a stimulating and sobering play about hidden memories and the effects they can have when finally uncovered.

The Great God Pan

Featuring: Keith Nobbs (Frank), Jeremy Strong (Jamie), Sarah Goldberg (Paige), Becky Ann Baker (Cathy), Peter Fitzgerald (Doug) Erin Wilhelmi (Joelle), Joyce Van Patten (Polly)

Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Carolyn Canter
Scenic Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Japhy Wiedeman
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Casting: Alldaffer, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger
Production Manager: Christopher Boll
Assistant Stage Manager: Marisa Levy

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission

Closes: January 13, 2013

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