In Amy Herzog’s 2012 play “The Great God Pan,” the suggestion of a possible childhood trauma forces a man to seek answers by sorting through fragments of childhood memories.
And as we all know, memories can be fragile – and inconsistent.
“He ventures into a murky world of his past that only becomes more muddy as memories are dislodged,” says Fresno State director Kathleen McKinley of the family drama. The production opens Friday.
Yet “Pan” can’t simply be characterized as a “childhood trauma” play. It’s more nuanced than that, McKinley says. We caught up with her to talk about the show.
Q: You want to assure people that there’s no violence or trauma on stage. Is there a danger of putting “labels” on plays such as this?
A: Sure, I think we sometimes categorize plays by the latest hot-button topics, and this play certainly includes some of those situations. Exploring contemporary social issues on stage is important, and yet I am often drawn to plays that delve into the complexities that lie just under the surface in most human relationships – hope, disappointment, yearning, fear, insecurity. In this play, the possibility of a childhood trauma complicates what are already relationships that are familiarly tense. The trauma itself is not the story, but how the suspicion of a trauma crumbles the characters’ equanimity.
Q: What sort of journey does Jamie (the main character, played by Steven Weatherbee) take?
A: Jamie questions himself, “What am I afraid of, right?” Don’t we all ask that question when we feel stuck in a moment when we intellectually know we should act? What does his past have to do with any problems he has in his present, or does it? As the playwright says, will he find answers, excuses, or a “bridge to something unexpected?”
Q: Amy Herzog is a hot commodity these days in terms of playwriting. What is it about her style and subject matter that has captured the attention of critics and audiences?
A: Yes, critics call Herzog one of the “bright theatrical lights of her generation.” She often includes explosive issues in her plays, but creates characters that work hard to avoid drama. Her dialogue is contemporary and conversational, and much is left unsaid and unexplained by the characters, just as so often occurs in life. A few years ago, I suggested one of her earlier plays, “4,000 Miles,” for the campus experimental student company that I advise, and along with “The Great God Pan,” these are the first local productions of her work.
Q: Repressed memory of childhood abuse is controversial. How does the play deal with this?
A: While not promoting a political or medical position on repressed or recovered memory, the play exposes the human need for seeking a witness – someone to confirm, to share, to say, “I remember that, too, just as you do. I was there, too.” Each character in the play has a different take on the power of memory, whether that memory is clear or lurking somewhere in the shadows of our minds.
Q: Over the holidays you drafted your family, including your two adult children, into a reading of the play. (I get the feeling this is a common occasion in the McKinley household.) What was their reaction?
A: I have to be careful here. If I reveal too much, everyone might decide to skip the next holiday visit to my house! But, yes, I just happened to have the “perfect” cast of younger and older adults staying with me for the holidays, including two very “good natured” and unsuspecting partners of my kids. (Both couples are still together so any relationship damage was not irreparable.) First, the younger cast members were very hooked into the mystery of the plot. What really happened? Who was involved? Secondly, they recognized aspects of these characters among us, certainly not the specific plot complications, but the dynamics in the relationships. At one or two moments, it all became a little too real for all of us. Interesting family discussion ensued, and has continued.
Q: Herzog based the title of the play on an Elizabeth Barret Browning poem.
A: The playwright remembers her grandmother reciting the first few lines from “A Musical Instrument,” a poem about the mythological half-man, half-goat. “What was he doing, the Great God Pan?” Pan destroys a pastoral river scene to carve an enchanted flute from the “tender reeds” that he tears from the bank. Herzog recalls the “spooky, incantatory quality.” As a child, she did not quite understand what Pan was doing, but she sensed it was something “not very nice.” She declines to “spell it out,” but for Herzog, this poem seems to be one of those unsettling memories of childhood.
Q: How does the poem fit into your production design?
A: Without giving away too much, the image of a creek lined by a tangle of trees is strong in the play. The play takes place in multiple locations in Brooklyn and suburban New Jersey. The production design incorporates trees, along with the various emotional connotations childhood memories sometime connect to trees.
Q: In terms of the child-parent dynamic, it can be a major transition when we lose our parents, as you did with your mother just a few years ago. Now, with adult children of your own, you’ve shifted into looking at that relationship solely from the parent perspective. How did this impact your take on the play?
A: Herzog writes that she became a mother just prior to going into rehearsals for “The Great God Pan” and how the concept of “childhood” began to move from thoughts of her own childhood but her daughter’s. As a director, I like to think I can see life through the eyes of every character in every play. When directing actors, I will passionately instill a sense of right in one character, and then immediately flip sides to explain to another actor playing an opposing character why he or she must fight to win the scene. This is what most theater artists love about our work: imagining and deeply, honestly exploring what it is to be human from every perspective, even if the plot is not close to our own personal experience. And yes, much of the parent-adult child relationship in this play rings true to me as I no longer see myself as someone’s child, but will always be someone’s parent. Family relationships are complex, and throughout rehearsals it has been important to recognize the disappointment, fear, love, and hope that fuels the moments of anger and accusation.
Q: Memory can be such a slippery, nebulous thing. You can compare notes with a sibling about childhood and have completely different memories of the same people and events. Do you think we trust our own memories too much?
A: I know I have had the experience of relating a childhood memory to my sister, and from her response, wondering if we were raised by two different sets of parents in two different states! What we remember is what we remember. I think it is wise to recognize that context is a huge part of making sense of the past. A memory that might seem funny to a child may seem dangerous or troubling through the sensibilities of adulthood. I do think the uneasy feeling that occurs when childhood memories are fuzzy is experienced by most people at one time or another.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this play?
A: Sometimes, we fail those we most want to protect and love.
The playwright explains that this play shows “well meaning people failing each other and living with that failure.” I hope the production encourages the audience to see the heroism it takes to own one’s part in relationship failures, and the courage it takes to move forward with that consciousness.