by Phil Beck
Iowa City – The Great God Pan, Amy Herzog’s 2012 psychological drama which opened last Friday at Public Space One, is simply composed—ten scenes performed without intermission—but nevertheless investigates with great insight the complexities of memory and identity, and the elusive nature of truth. The characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives, easily recognized among our friends and neighbors. What’s extraordinary about them is how powerfully alive they become in the course of 100 short minutes. Drama doesn’t have to be about larger-than-life characters or earthshaking events to generate emotional power. In Dreamwell Theatre’s fine interpretation, this play does that through hesitant words of reconciliation or quiet sharing of memories, simple acts that reveal the complicated and sometimes heartbreaking destinies lying hidden inside normal-looking lives.
In the opening scene, two childhood friends reconnect. Frank (Bryan Clark), a young man with a troubled history, has contacted Jamie (Tom Rose), a successful internet journalist, after 25 years, ostensibly to talk about old times and reminisce about their kindly old baby-sitter. Then Frank tells Jamie something shocking about himself—he’s suing his father for sexually molesting him as a child. This shock is compounded by the question Frank asks Jamie next, a question with serious implications for Jamie’s life.
What follows could have been a single-track search for that question’s answer, but author Herzog charts a more interesting course. She explores the profound impact this initial interaction has on Jamie’s relationships with his girlfriend, Paige (Erin Mills), and his parents (Meg Dobbs and Chuck Dufano), as well as with his own understanding of himself. As Jamie, Tom Rose navigates the several stages of response—denial, anger, questioning, etc.—with unwavering intensity. The nervous mannerisms and facial expressions he uses in the opening scene to convey his unease with Frank grow more pronounced as his composure and confidence erode. At times his facial tics become too exaggerated and prove distracting, but his restless pacing of the stage and increasingly unsteady voice and hands capture Jamie’s torment in a convincing way. It’s a very physical performance in an otherwise nonphysical play, and the contrast between him and the less demonstrative style of the other actors highlights not only the extremity of Jamie’s pain but his isolation from his loved ones.
At the same time his girlfriend, Paige, undergoes her own trial. She’s a therapist simultaneously grieving a dancing career lost to injury and struggling to help an uncooperative patient, a high school girl with an eating disorder (Julia Sears). These conflicts mirror the growing struggle between her and Jamie, whose secrecy about what is eating at him strains their relationship. Herzog wisely makes Paige the protagonist of her own story rather than just a supporting player in Jamie’s, rescuing her from thankless supportive-girlfriend cliches. Erin Mills’s excellent, emotionally mature performance as Paige anchors the play in many ways, and the insight Paige eventually gains into her own wounds leads to one of the play’s key moments of understanding and compassion.
The other cast members bring great sensitivity to their portrayals of flawed but essentially decent people. Dobbs and Dufano evoke just the right amount of pathos as loving parents confused by their guilt over something they’ve never dared think about, let alone confirm. One of the play’s high points is Dobbs’s heartrending conversation with Jamie in which both approach the frightening precipice of the truth as close as they will allow themselves. That it takes place over cell phones ironically underscores the distance that has opened up between mother and son. And Mary Lukas contributes a chilling turn as the babysitter, Polly, whom Jamie visits in a nursing home in his search for clarity. Refusing to entertain anything but happy associations with the past—she remembers Frank’s father, Dennis, only with fondness—Lukas adopts a sing-song voice and unnerving smile to convey a cheeriness so desperate it seems worn like a mask.
Though the pacing in the early scenes could be brisker, Jo Anderson’s direction overall is assured and in tune with the material. The lack of intermission helps the suspense build and cements the audience’s identification with the characters. I was especially intrigued by the way Anderson alternated scenes between background and foreground—one scene performed on the inner part of the stage followed by one played upfront—a back-and-forth movement that evokes the tension between past and present or the shifting natures of memory and “truth.” In the second half the action mostly occurs upfront, bringing characters and audience closer together as their shared understanding grows.
Where is the god Pan in all of this? The mythological allusion of the title is purposefully the play’s most discordant note. When Jamie visits Polly, she reminds him of a verse she used to recite to him and Frank as children,
What is he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
This quotation from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “A Musical Instrument,” presents an image of the destruction of nature in a state of innocence. Pan is a satyr—half-man, half-goat—most familiar in Western culture as a symbol of unbridled sexuality, and sometimes associated with Satan. The character who never appears in the play but is at its center is Frank’s father, Dennis. Satyr, Satan, Pan—by any name, he is the author of the original “ruin.” “Dennis,” not coincidentally, is “sinned” spelled backward.
The Great God Pan is Dreamwell’s third entry in its season “Interrogation: Uncovering the Buried Self,” and the one that best fits that description so far. Uncovering what’s buried inside each of us is the first step in healing the hurt that often lies buried with it, and this memorable production reminds us how necessary self-knowledge is.