Regional Roundup

BWW Review: PAMPLONA at Goodman Theatre

BWW Review: PAMPLONA at Goodman Theatre

It is no small feat to create a believable portrait of a great artist that pays homage to their creative genius and their ordinary hopes, struggles, and failures. Playwright Jim McGrath does exactly this for Ernest Hemingway in PAMPLONA. Under Robert Falls' direction, renowned actor Stacy Keach returns to the role he was meant to play in spring of 2017, before a mild heart attack prevented the Goodman's world premiere production from opening. It was worth the wait.

In this one-man show, we meet the aging writer in a run-down Spanish hotel as he attempts to complete an overdue article for Life magazine. Although the action never moves beyond this room, Hemingway's conversational reminiscences take the audience on a virtual journey through his youth in Oak Park, IL, his formative years during the First World War, his life among the literary elite of 1920s Paris, his rocky marriages to four vivacious women, and his near escapes from death during various globetrotting adventures.

From this non-linear narrative emerges a sympathetic vision of a life lived to the full, capturing the range of human passions. Of course, Hemingway's was a life of more than average fame, but the themes of PAMPLONA are universal: love, loss, guilt, regret, hope, fear, triumph, and despair. Keach's performance is spellbinding and subtle; he captures the precise emotional tone for each story with a style as natural as a grandfather sharing memories with his family.

During each flashback, Michael Roth's original music and soundscape and Adam Flemming's projections (which include archival photographs and footage) transport the audience to these far-off times and places. While such techniques can risk distracting from the cast's performance, in this case they enhance the distinct atmosphere lent to each scene by McGrath's eloquent text and Keach's sensitive delivery.

While PAMPLONA is an utterly human portrait of Hemingway, it does not downplay the brilliant mind of this literary legend. Rather, it offers glimpses of the hard work, frustration, and loneliness behind this man's artistic output. As Hemingway says in the play, to be a successful writer one must "observe life, digest it, and create your own vision." This quote sums up the quiet beauty of PAMPLONA: the mundane, the painful, and the extraordinary elements of one human life are equally transformed by the artist into something meaningful and profound.

PAMPLONA runs through August 19 at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60601. Tickets are available at 312.443.3800 or goodmantheatre.org.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren

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From This Author Emily McClanathan

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