Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan borrows its name from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning titled "A Musical Instrument." It concerns the Greek god Pan, part-man and part-goat, ransacking a river to build a reed instrument. Intimations of hedonistic darkness, particularly regarding Pan's specialty — sexuality — burble beneath the surface of the piece, and it's this element that seems to resonate most directly with Herzog's play.
But I have a more succinct literary allusion: William Faulkner's famous line, from Requiem for a Nun, that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." In Herzog's works, from After the Revolution to 4000 Miles to The Great God Pan, young people find themselves at a crossroads triggered by history both recent and distant. Past events resurface, old wounds reopen, memories are exhumed and autopsied. How Herzog's Gen-Xers or millennials deal with the grief, trauma, or emotional rewiring caused by confronting these moments will dictate the rest of their lives.
More oblique than any of those other plays, The Great God Pan is about the unreliability of memory and the emotional cost — or potential gain — of exploring its darker recesses. Enjoying a pleasingly abstract if not fully connecting production from Zoetic Stage, it's a difficult piece with more moving parts than it initially seems.
The Great God Pan
The Great God Pan: Through June 8 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45.
It opens with two 30-somethings sitting in a park — the clean-cut and well-groomed Jamie (Nicholas Richberg) and the scruffy, fingernail-painted, tattoo-covered, fidgety Frank (Matt Stabile). As children, they were neighbors, but this is their first conversation in 27 years. Frank cuts to the chase: He's filing a lawsuit against his father for sexual abuse when he was a child, and he has reason to believe Jamie might have been victimized as well.
Jamie denies the suggestion out of hand, and Frank is both apologetic and insistent. Frank is also gay, a fact with which Jamie is not 100 percent comfortable. It's an exquisitely directed scene by Stuart Meltzer — the lengthy conversational beats flooded with rotten memories, the discomfort of both men thick enough to penetrate with a chainsaw.
It's not the best time for Jamie to absorb news like this, but when is it ever? A budding journalist recently hired by a magazine, he's just found out his girlfriend of six years, Paige (Aubrey Shavonn Kessler), is pregnant. It was unplanned, and Jamie doesn't react well to it. They have a quarrel — in their only scenes together, their fight creates the impression they shouldn't be together — and both say things they'll soon regret. He doesn't tell her about Frank's ominous visit, confiding instead to his parents (Angie Radosh and David Kwiat), whose puzzling reaction muddies the murky waters of his memory even more.
In a sense, The Great God Pan is a mystery, with Jamie as detective and the sexual allegations about his past the dark MacGuffin that leads him down a soul-searching path. There's a beautiful scene, the poetic centerpiece of the show, in which he visits his and Frank's childhood babysitter, Polly (Barbara Bradshaw), who is now confined to a wheelchair in an assisted-living facility. They share a memory that haunted and now rehaunts Jamie, while Polly admits she simply found it amusing. In addition to seeing two of this community's best actors in peak form, the scene speaks to the show's larger themes of the subjectivity of memory and the way our perceptions dictate our realities better than any other moment in the play.
If you recognize some of these actors' names, you know that Meltzer has assembled a superb cast. Radosh brings both observant humor and touching melancholy to Jamie's mother, Cathy, embodying a woman caught adrift by Frank's allegations, which conjure the bleakest time in her life. There is much warmth and vitality in Kwiat, who brings intuition and actorly curiosity to the role of Doug, Jamie's father. Stabile's pain and discomfort in discussing his character's tragic past is palpable, and Richberg is the production's steadfast anchor, delivering a profoundly identifiable, no-frills performance.
Kessler is less successful as Paige, whose character comes across as the most cardboard in the show. A lack of affect in her early scenes leads to an absence of chemistry with Richberg and a sense of flatness in her performance — like a musician playing notes exactly as they're written, without feeling.
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A former dancer sidelined by an injury, Paige now works as a nutritionist/therapist, and she has two scenes, set a week apart, with an anorexic teenager (Mary Sansone). The sharp edges Kessler brings to her part lack a therapist's empathy, though it's difficult to tell if the fault lies with Kessler's performance or a poorly written character from Herzog; either way, scenes that are supposed to add dimension and sympathy for Paige instead feel like unnecessary detours from the narrative.
The Great God Pan is staged in the round, a first for Zoetic. Jodi Dellaventura's minimalist scenic design consists of amber bulbs dangling from a suspended wooden beam, illuminating a field of wood chips punctuated on four sides by shaved tree trunks, which act as the characters' chairs. A cellist, Aaron Merritt, sits off in a corner, his performances of famous Bach and Benjamin Britten suites adding instrumental flavor between scenes. There are no props and very little extroversion in the performances, but the actors step in and out of the field when necessary; in general, it seems Meltzer has smartly integrated more movement than in previous productions of this play.
The set brings to mind another minimalist play that costarred Richberg in a South Florida production: GableStage's Cock, in which a metaphorical boxing ring became the all-purpose setting. Here, each severed trunk, its exposed rings reinforcing the theme of the past encroaching on the present, functions not unlike the posts of a boxing ring. As in Cock, its inhabitants circle one another and occasionally land verbal knockout blows.
But if Frank and Jamie were on opposing sides at the beginning of the play, they share a corner by the end. They are kindred spirits brought together by pain and regret, the reason for Frank's initial visit virtually beside the point. This production, and most likely Herzog's play, is imperfect, but the moving conclusion provides the bookend of clarity it needed, and it will send audiences home with rivers of themes to wade through.