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 the last few years were a wasted effort on her side, since he refuses to take their life together seriously. The couple’s passionate, tense exchanges are riveting, and at one point, Jamie erupts in a nasty anger fit at Paige with an off-the-charts outburst that is both surprising and bizarre. Perhaps that childhood trauma obliterated from his memory has stealthily shaped his personality in more fundamental ways than she surmised!
Carolyn Feres' closely gauged performance as Paige is commendable despite her involvement in an awkward subplot. Paige, a former dancer whose career has been cut short by injury, is remaking her life as a therapist, and we see her in consulting sessions with Joelle (Marisa Shlichtman), a young woman struggling with anorexia, a condition that, no doubt as an ex-dancer, is one in which Paige has had challenges herself. The scenes do not add a lot to the narrative, but does add perspective to Paige's personality and principles.
Throughout the story, however, playwright Herzog squarely takes on depression, suicide and addictions in a mounting quandary, alleviated only by swiftly passing moments of humor. But Herzog uses that uneasiness to force the audience to contemplate on these difficult themes as we watch this thought-provoking tapestry of trauma unfold.
Mr. Cobb ("All the American Men," "Macbeth," "Never the Sinner") rises to the challenge of this dramatic role and then some, playing his part with emotional transparency. He is as natural as breath, and late in the 95-minute play, he radiates so much pain that you may even be holding yours. It may, in fact, be one of the most devastatingly accurate portraits seen in quite a while of a thirty-something straight male’s emotional compartmentalization and moral paralysis.
Director Tom Amen sustains the narrative line with an adept hand, using poignant moments with methodical emphasis and allows his characters to instinctively process the layers of emotion in their scenes. Conversations flow naturally, occasionally talking over each other, rather than using the artificial politeness that permeates most plays. There are odd pauses mid-sentence, exuberant discussions, and conspicuous body language left in deliberate, rough honesty, rather than smoothed into polished language and elegant interactions.
Tim Mueller’s Scenic Design is visually intriguing and evocative, a creative, concerted mix of platforms and interconnecting circular panels, stark with touches of symbolized natural elements – a brainstorm concept that Director Tom Amen collaboratively suggested when an idea occurred to him while viewing a large boulder in a frozen lake at Mammoth.
“The cracked ice that surrounded the boulder had actually settled into a strange series of concentric circles - like a ‘shock wave’ that had been flash-frozen in place…And I remember smiling and thinking to myself ‘Well, that’s it right there - that’s my general take on the set for The Great God Pan!”
Veronica Mullins serves as Sound Designer, Sigrid Hammer Wolf is the Lighting Designer and also handles Production; Stage Manager is Mike Riley and Technical Director is Terry Otto. The Costume Designer is Jojo Siu, assisted by Sylvia Boutelle.
“The Great God Pan” is uncomfortable at times, but with relatable characters who behave in a realistic fashion, displaying not only outbursts of cruelty but tender extensions of love. The level of commitment and vulnerability required of the actors is intense, and one can see that the cast is fully immersed in their roles.
What’s most chilling about the play is the idea that an abhorrent crime like child abuse can continue “spreading ruin” — not just in the lives of its direct victims, but even in the lives of those who believe themselves untainted by its poison. Jamie’s despair as he begins to distrust the evidence of his own senses is not something I’ll soon forget.
“The Great God Pan” opened Friday, March 8 on the Mainstage Theater at Golden West College and will play through March 17. This show is Highly, Highly Recommended! Tickets are available now at www.gwctheater.com/great-god-pan-march-8-17-2019/
National Youth Arts