Dallas — You gotta feel for Jamie (Alex Organ), the overwrought, spooked-out 32-year-old New York journalist at the center of Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, directed by Carson McCain at Second Thought Theatre. Or do you?
Frank (Drew Wall), a heavily tattooed gay massage therapist with punked-out hair and a tight smile that Jamie hasn’t seen for 25 years, thinks they may have been molested by the same man when they were pre-schoolers. That man is Frank’s dad, and now he’s suing his father for sexual abuse and wants Jamie to try to remember what may have happened to him when he was playing at Frank’s house. Jamie is like, huh? No, no no. “I don’t remember anything like that,” he tells Frank—and beats a quick retreat to the next scene.
Although he initially shrugs off Frank’s question about his own possible sexual abuse, Jamie can’t help telling his girlfriend Paige (Natalie Young) about seeing Frank. Then he starts asking his parents questions and eventually ends up interrogating his old babysitter Polly (Laura Yancey), now living in a nursing home.
Director McCain moves seven characters swiftly through scene after scene in 85 minutes, as Jamie’s quest for the truth of what may or may not have happened increases in urgency. Characters shift from coffee shop to bedroom to kitchen table to office and back to park bench or counseling sofa on Jeffrey Schmidt’s spacious, handsome set design, carrying props on and off as they come and go. Six high windows surround the intimate arena stage, through which we see tree limbs and sky shifting color and brightness to reflecting changing hours and seasons in Aaron Johansen’s suggestive lighting design.
The unreliability of personal memory triggers other issues surrounding the young couple at the play’s center, including the will to commit to a relationship, and the courage to have a child and nurture it. Organ’s Jamie seems good-natured and levelheaded—apparently a model boyfriend and son. But when confronted with any sort of change or uncertainty, cool Jamie overheats and explodes—or simply stalls out.
Paige, a dancer turned nutrition counselor after a career-ending accident, teases Jamie about how weird he is around gay men. Seriously staring or wearing a faint smile, Young’s wound-up Paige is furious at Jamie for his lame response to the news that she’s pregnant. “You need a little time?” she says, reminding hesitant Jamie she is 34 years old, and time is just what she does not have a lot of when it comes to conceiving a child.
Jamie goes home to see his upbeat liberal folks in New Jersey, something he rarely does. He is pretty distanced from them. His mom (chatty Cindy Beall in an expensive jogging suit) brags on Jamie’s rising writing career, but seems none too shocked to hear that Frank is gay or may have had “troubles.”
Jamie’s dad (a hearty, hands-on Bob Hess), fresh from a yoga lesson, takes the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart with his son about some tenuous early days in his own marriage when Jamie was barely four years old. The couple tried to avoid gossip in a college town in the ’80s by making some special temporary living arrangements for little Jamie. Hmm. Shaken and angered by their stories, Jamie is more confounded than ever about what may have happened to him.
Meanwhile, Paige goes about her business of counseling and weighing an anorexic teenager (a thin, skittish Dagny Sanson) with serious issues and her own set of warring parents.
Jamie, his personal relationships going rapidly south, visits the aging babysitter he shared with Frank when they were kids. When she recalls taking the boys to play on the creek, Polly dramatically recites lines from the poem (the source of the title by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) both boys remembered learning. The opening lines, like the thread of the play, are a question: “WHAT was he doing, the great God Pan/Down in the reeds by the river?”
By the time the play has have moved full circle and 10 scenes, back to the last meeting with Frank, the question has become even more loaded. What, indeed, happened?
Ambiguity never loosens its palsied hand on the show. Certainly, Jamie’s debilitating doubt increases as he struggles to recover lost or suppressed memory. More interesting, perhaps, is why Jamie allows this vague shadow from the past to make such a shambles of his present.
Drew Wall’s pale and pleading Frank is increasingly pressing—somehow both pitiful threatening—in his determined effort to be sure “no one else is hurt” by his father. Ironically, Frank’s attempt to prevent injury in the future sets off the sad unraveling of Jamie’s personal life.
In Herzog’s Belleville, mounted by STT last season, we see a similar soft belly beneath a conventionally romantic surface in a young married couple. Here, as there, it seems the main character’s psyche is such stuff as ambiguity is made on—and the audience looks on as they freak out over what is to come.
The actors’ performances in The Great God Pan are nuanced and touching at moments, but when the show is done it’s hard to wonder for long about what uncertain fate might await them. This is, perhaps, the playwright’s saddest indictment of the fragile, fleeting souls carrying the weight of her plays.