When you think back to your childhood, what do you really remember? Was it all popsicles, playgrounds, and snuggles, or is your subconscious blocking more disturbing moments? And – over time – is not remembering some traumatic really an advantage?
“. . .the story is strong, and Hummert’s performance alone is well worth the experience.”
How our psyche revises our perceptions of life history is the essence of Amy Herzog’s fascinating drama “The Great God Pan,” the final production in this season’s trio of her work at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.
Herzog’s work always examines a deeper side of family life, those moments that define us, where multiple generations look through life’s prism differently, and where shared experiences emerge with disparate outcomes. It’s intense and thoughtful work, and it’s the basis of really superb human drama. Herzog is a modern master at this very real storytelling.
This is a character-driven story, and this each character has plenty of baggage and long-repressed memories. The major forces are two childhood chums who meet again many years since they last hung out in daycare. Jordan Louis Fischer is Frank, the instigator of the meeting. Gay, pierced, and tattooed, he small talks with Jamie (Adam Yellen), the seemingly uncomfortable, reluctant guest, until he gets to the point: Frank is bringing suit against his father who sexually abused him as a child. He asks if Jamie remembers. He doesn’t. Watch the stage dynamic here: it’s fascinating. As Frank opens up, Jamie shuts down, imperceptive. Later – when Jamie tells his girlfriend Paige (Kelly Beuth) about this meeting – she says, “You’re always so weird with gay men, calling them ‘man’ and ‘dude.’ Did you do that?” Frank and Paige have their own issues. She’s angry with Jamie: seems he wasn’t immediately overjoyed when she announced that –surprise – she’s pregnant. In their volatile exchange, some of their past is revealed, perhaps the words that should remain unspoken.
Still perplexed by Frank’s revelation, Jamie takes his story to his parents, affable Cathy and Doug (perfectly played by Steve Vaughan and Lisa Vitrano, respectively) who have their own set of secrets from Jamie’s childhood. Watch for that awkward moment between father and son: hug or handshake? Seems like Jamie keeps everyone at arm’s length. Jamie begins to remember odd bits and pieces: were they true or mere suggestions?
The most poignant moments in this show belong to two tertiary characters. Darleen Pickering Hummert is Polly, Frank and Jamie’s childhood caregiver. She’s in a nursing home now, and as dementia dims her memories, she remembers the young kids in her care, perhaps fleetingly. Hummert is magnificent in this small role. When Jamie visits, we see joy in her remembering, along with her pain at not remembering. Her exquisite expressions are haunting, beautiful, painful.
Amelia Scinta has two all-too-brief scenes as Joelle, a client in Paige’s nutrition counseling practice, who is struggling with body image and an eating disorder. Scinta modulates her voice and expressions perfectly, moving from upbeat to disdain at how her body is failing her. There’s a strange power in these two scenes as Joelle seeks to control her body and change her mindset. Scinta nails this.
Director Saul Elkin maximizes the real value of this square stage. Each quadrant is a scene space, with actors effortlessly moving small set pieces between them. Two key scenes are metaphorically at dead center – physically touching a sliver of each space – in a subtle reminder that past and present are inter-reliant. He uses small, soft sound effects so well, setting the mood from coffee shop to park.
Strangely, it’s the two main characters that gave me pause. Beuth and Yellen are both fine actors with plenty of acting chops, yet they didn’t seem suited for their two roles. Consequently, their rapport – and lack thereof – felt off. She looked too mature to be his girlfriend. Hints of her life struggles are brushed off without giving depth to her character. Even with the bushy untrimmed beard of a millennial, Yellen looks out of place with his character. Or he’s playing flat and emotionless at a very high level.
Despite this, the story is strong, and Hummert’s performance alone is well worth the experience.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Adult language.
“The Great God Pan” runs until May 21, 2017 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.