“I have a terrible memory,” says Jamie, the troubled main character in Amy Herzog’s wildly interesting “The Great God Pan.”
He’s speaking in general terms about his ability to remember a slice of his childhood. But the words might come to mean something much more specific. And that’s what gives this play such an edge.
We can all relate to the challenges of memory. After getting caught up in this taut 80-minute play, which has been given an ambitious and engaging if slightly uneven production at Fresno State, I spent some time musing afterward about just how much I remember from my time as a 4-year old. Would I be able to remember the color of my day-care provider’s hair? Whether or not her couch was scratchy? The first names of the parents of the kid I used to play with down the street?
Central to the plot is Jamie (played by a very fine Steven Weatherbee), a 32-year-old Brooklyn journalist who is thrust – quite unwillingly – into trying to remember an allegation of possible childhood abuse at the hands of a friend’s father. Did it happen? He has no recollection. Could it have happened? Yes.
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If it did happen, does it matter if he can’t remember it anyway? Ah, here is where things get really interesting.
“The Great God Pan” has more than a hint of menace to it, from the darkly pagan allusions of its title (based on a slightly ominous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning about how art can destroy even as it creates) to Jeff Hunter’s backdrop of trees (given a gnarled, melancholy feel by Regina Harris’ lighting design) that dominates the minimalist set.
Director Kathleen McKinley coaxes a nuanced and memorable performance from Weatherbee, whose Jamie is thrown into a state of discomfiture when a childhood friend (Benjamin Garcia) drops the possible-abuse bombshell. In an effort to follow up, Jamie awkwardly broaches the subject with his parents (Alyssa Benitez and Joel Young), with whom he is not particularly close. And he talks about it with his longtime girlfriend, Paige (Emily Kearns), who’s studying to be a therapist, but their strained relationship is already taking a beating in other areas.
“The Great God Pan” is notably even-handed as the question of “did it happen or not?” moves forward. But it’s more than simply a “repressed memory whodunit.” And while its musings on memory are sure to spark discussion, neither does it remain on an aloof intellectual level. To me, one of the play’s greatest strengths is how it slowly and surely becomes an emotional account of a life that is slowly unraveling.
There’s something detached and strained about Jamie, a disconnect when it comes to human connection, that feels both sad and sterile. Weatherbee captures this ambiguity with a low-key burn. For his character, the revelation of possible sexual abuse is upsetting on its own, but the real impact is the way it triggers in him an awakening to all the other limitations of his life.
The play is challenging in terms of acting, with scenes often beginning mid-conversation, and as such is a great learning experience for college actors. Sometimes the delivery doesn’t quite mesh with the script. (“Please don’t talk to me like that,” a character says, but the preceding line wasn’t delivered at the Sunday matinee I attended in a way that would prompt that response.)
Kearns has some fierce emotional moments as Jamie’s girlfriend, but she didn’t click with me in her scenes as an analyst. I feel as if she’s so intent on projecting to the audience that she loses some of the more quiet, nuanced aspects of her character. Garcia has some awkward moments playing awkward, especially in the opening scene, but later on he’s more effective.
Yet there is much to appreciate. Jolissa Hernandez, as an anorexic client of Paige’s, and Arium Andrews, as Jamie’s former babysitter, spark in secondary roles. As the parents, Benitez and Young (aged far beyond their years by Rachel Martinez’s hair and makeup and Elizabeth Payne’s costume design) are memorable, middle-aged gaits and all.
I was also impressed by sound designer Liz Waldman, who at one point gives the audience a peek into Jamie’s memories by letting us “hear” them in an aural cacophony.
That nod to the messiness of memory lingers. And buttresses the theme that uncertainty is built into us, like a computer whose RAM has lost more than a few bytes but is still limping along.
My daycare provider’s hair color? It was black.