REVIEW: "The Great God Pan" - Golden West College Theater Arts Mainstage

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...A seed of doubt is planted, and from it sprouts an agony that edges into anguish."

In “The Great God Pan,” the haunting play by Amy Herzog, currently running on Golden West College’s Mainstage, the hazy recesses of memory become like an abyss inhabited by grim phantoms for the central character, Jamie (Matthew Cobb), an up-and-coming journalist who finds his orderly life disintegrating when an unexpected visit from a childhood friend brings a disturbing revelation.

Ms. Herzog's tightly wound and intensely emotional play, concerning a man's reckoning with his past and the slippery slope of his memories, opened to teeming crowds searching their own souls on March 8th and continues through this weekend, closing on March 17th. The story positions on the common conundrum: If an event happens to you as a child and you don't remember it, does that lack of memory have any bearing on who you are as a grownup? But what if said event was a heinous crime which threw a cloak of denial around your whole sense of identity, blocking that memory away forever as an adult?

Drawn from a title in an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem about Pan, that Rabelaisian forest sprite — “The Great God Pan” joins Ms. Herzog’s earlier acclaimed multigenerational melodramas, including the Outer Critics Circle Award winning "After the Revolution," and "4,000 Miles," which was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ms. Herzog, an exciting theatrical voice who excels at stories of quiet urgency, understands how momentous events in our lives can sometimes pass by without registering on the surface. She maps out this tale with great care, sensitivity and eloquence.

Jamie, a seemingly well-adjusted and successful journalist, possesses all the mental acuity his trade requires. But he recalls virtually nothing of his early childhood – not even when his parents remind him of events in detail. This peculiar circumstance comes to light when Frank (Mason Meskell), a childhood friend who Jamie hasn’t seen for some 25 years, asks to meet with him.

As boys, they shared a baby-sitter, Polly (Kathleen Fabry, in one of the show’s most appealing performances), who's now 80-ish and battling dementia. Other than Polly, the clean-cut Jamie and the more worldly Frank seem to not have much in common. The differences between the men the children have become is very pronounced.

But the visit isn’t just a friendly attempt to reconnect: the amiable demeanor of Frank hides a more somber purpose. He has come to tell Jamie that he is in the midst of closing the book on his father's pedophilia. Jamie is sympathetic, but baffled as to why Frank has sought him out to make this admission, until Frank hesitantly adds that in talking with his father, who has admitted to sexually abusing him early in life, it emerged that Jamie, too, may have been among his victims.

This meeting with Frank, who looks like he’s seen some rough times, deeply unsettles Jamie. There are huge empty patches in his childhood recollections, as there are in anyone’s, of course. He can’t really remember even what Frank’s father looked like. He recalls nothing unusual about him…but a seed of doubt is planted, and from it sprouts an agony that edges into anguish.

The very uncertainty wrenches his life from its groove of contentment, even as Jamie continues to insist he has no recollection of anything happening. And his parents aren’t sure they really want to know. Much of the play deals with how this get-together with Frank impacts Jamie's loving but distant relationship with his parents, Cathy and Doug (Carrie Vinikow and Brad Vinikow), who live in New Jersey. His mildly judgmental mother finds herself consumed with guilt for not protecting him, and takes to wandering through neighborhoods jabbering incoherently on the phone.

The situation also weighs heavily on Jamie's relationship with his very outspoken girlfriend, Paige (Carolyn Feres). Their relatively happy six-year affair had just hit a bump right before Frank arrived over Paige’s unexpected pregnancy, about which Jamie is inflamed and deeply ambivalent. Paige, who has her own inner demons to worry about, calls him out on his lack of communication. “You listen, but you don’t act.” She points out that relationships take work on both sides, and wonders if th