This undated publicity photo released by The Publicity Office shows, from left, Joyce Van Patten and Jeremy Strong, in a scene from Amy Herzog’s new play, “The Great God Pan,” currently performing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in New York. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — Suppose you found out something terrible might have happened to you, yet you still couldn’t remember it.
Amy Herzog’s thoughtful new play, “The Great God Pan,” about a possibly repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse, is more about the nature of memory itself, and the often well-intentioned miscommunication patterns that develop within families and relationships.
In a beautifully-conceived, affecting world premiere that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Herzog (“4000 Miles” and “After the Revolution”) employs her characteristic restraint to set up ordinary-seeming, intimate and touching scenes, in which even wordless moments can reveal seismic epiphanies for some characters.
Carolyn Cantor’s unforced direction gently increases the tension and emotional impact, as several generations of characters cope with life-changing realizations in the 80-minute production.
A host of crises suddenly engulf 32-year-old late bloomer Jamie Perrin (Jeremy Strong, in a reserved, sensitive portrayal of increasing confusion and self-doubt). Jamie is completely blindsided when a long-forgotten childhood friend, Frank (an intense Keith Nobbs), visits and shares the suggestion that they may have been molested as children.
Jamie possesses a serious lack of memory regarding his childhood, which factors into the suspense that builds as he initially denies Frank’s shocking news, yet cautiously begins to investigate. Nobbs’ enactment is so earnestly agreeable that recovering addict Frank’s credibility remains slightly shaky, increasing the uncertainty for everyone.
Jamie’s fond, somewhat hands-off parents react in different ways (Becky Ann Baker as Cathy and Peter Friedman as Doug, both excellent). Cathy initially gets angry at Frank, while Doug visits Jamie for an awkward but loving talk through the situation. Friedman is achingly sincere as an evolved, yoga-practicing, modern dad, who must apologetically reveal a huge family secret that stuns Jamie and factors into the possible molestation.
Sarah Goldberg is engaging and poignant as Jamie’s pregnant, longtime girlfriend Paige. An astute and caring social worker, Paige feels betrayed by Jamie’s increasingly distant behavior toward her, and they seem to be drifting apart. Erin Wilhelmi is delicately tense as a client of Paige’s whose problems in turn illuminate Paige’s anxieties.
Joyce Van Patten makes a sweet, animated appearance as Polly, an elderly former baby-sitter of both boys, who recited the poem “The Great God Pan” to the young boys as they played near the local creek. Jamie’s parents and Polly all feel guilty, saying they always knew something was wrong with young Frankie, but, in Doug’s words, “it was a different time, people weren’t really talking about those things.”
A dazzlingly efficient wall of sliding cubes created by Mark Wendland doubles as an ever-looming backdrop for a projection of the Perrins’ hometown wooded park. Against a forest of trees, Herzog’s characters engage in deceptively ordinary conversation as they search their memories for reinterpretation and new insight.