BWW Reviews: Epic Theatre Offers Intimate, Touching Slice of Life with THE GREAT GOD PAN
At one end of the theatrical spectrum are the big fantasies and storybook epics full of spectacle and wonder. At the other, the small, intimate, realistic slice-of-life kind of plays. The latter are the plays that take us deep into the world of people just like us, real, breathing human beings with lives very similar to our own. It is this kind of play that Epic Theatre is bringing to the black box at Artists' Exchange with their latest production, Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan.
At the center of the action is Jamie, a journalist who seems to be on the cusp of fame. Or perhaps fame has just always been just out of his reach or his ability, it's not certain. Either way, he's got a relatively stable life, including his long-term girlfriend Paige and his two loving parents. That stability gets severely tested when childhood friend, Frank, enters the picture. This long-forgotten aquaintance reaches out to Jamie unexpectedly and for a shocking reason: Frank is going to be pressing charges against his father for sexually molesting him as a child. Even more shocking, Frank believes that Jamie, too, may have been molested when the two spent time together as young boys at Frank's house.
In this context, playwright Amy Herzog is interested in examining the theme of memory, what we remember, what we forget, and how long-buried pieces of the past can shake our present to its core. The murkiness and potential unreliability of memories is a deep and intriguing topic. Unfortunately, Herzog barely scratches the surface with her too-short and fairly shallow script. More like half-a-play, the show only runs about eighty minutes long and feels even shorter than that.
Even a quality one-act play needs to have a beginning, middle and end. And it should have compelling characters, dialogue and plot. What Herzog has done here is only hint at those possibilities while presenting enticing characters in a highly charged situation that just doesn't go anywhere. Nearly every scene is too short or leaves the audience hanging in one way or another. Plotlines are introduced and forgotten and situations occur that have no repercussions, at least none that the audience gets to see. It's unfortunate because Herzog clearly has a talent for creating realistic, true-to-life and well-developed characters. It would have been great to see where these characters would have gone beyond the tiny portion of the story we get to witness here.
While it may be a tiny slice, Epic's production does succeed at bringing that slice to true, believable life. Director Juli Parker never rushes anything, letting the pace feel real and organic. Actors never seem to move or do something only because a director told them to, it all feels naturally motivated. She also doesn't dial up the drama in an unnatural way, letting the words in Herzog's script have their appropriate impact without artificially inflating anything.
It must be mentioned that a sudden, last minute change caused Parker's cast to change just before the performance I attended. The lead actor had to leave the show unexpectedly and was replaced prior to the performance. Luckily, Epic Theatre has an accomplished and capable actor in its founder and producer, Kevin Broccoli.
Broccoli has given a number of impressive performances on area stages and it's no less impressive that he stepped in here at the last minute. There's no way of telling what the show would or would not have been like with the other actor, but this may have been a happy accident because Broccoli gives what is, in my opinion, one of his most understated and nuanced performances ever, and the show really benefits. While Broccoli has come across as over the top and larger-than-life in some roles, here he is completely natural and believable as Jamie, a man struggling with the repercussions of a childhood trauma that he may have experienced but buried deep in his psyche.
While Broccoli gives a brilliant performance in his own right, he is surrounded by a talented and capable ensemble. It may also be the case that an actor of his talents raises the game of the actors around him, bringing out the best in them. As Jamie's girlfriend, Paige, Allison Crews is wonderful. Her performance never feels forced or fake and she makes Paige into someone we sympathize with and care about. It's a shame that Herzog's script never gives us a chance to really get to know Paige better.
That issue is a problem with all of the women in Herzog's script. Meghan Rose Donnelly is excellent as one of Paige's patients, a girl dealing with an eating disorder. While there are clearly major issues at play in the young girl's life, and Donnelly plays it all perfectly, we never really get to know the character or what's really going on with her. There's an even more brief chance to get to know another potentially important character, Polly, the woman who babysat Jamie and Frank when they were young boys. Even though Polly was an integral part of their lives during the traumatic events, the audience never gets any insight into what she's like as a person. Still, actress Carol Drowne does a great job with the small role.
Mary Paolino gets a little more stage time in the role of Jamie's mother and she is also excellent. The role is a bit more complex but she handles it well, offering a character who seems conflicted and unsure of how to handle the situation. Rounding out the cast are the two other male characters, Jamie's father, played wonderfully by Bradford J. Greer, and Frank, played by Michael Shallcross, who does what he can with the little the script really gives him.
At heart, The Great God Pan is all about what we remember and what we don't. It's a play that gives us an intimate portrait of one man and how deeply buried childhood memories shape his adult life. It's certainly a topic that every audience member can relate to and sympathize with. And it's a story brought to poignant and believable life by an excellent cast and director. While the story may be too short and leave too much out of the final product, it is an intriguing one that will likely stay in your memory for some time after the lights come down.