Playwright Amy Herzog and director Kimberly Senior have proven to be a formidable pairing. Ms. Senior has previously interpreted Ms. Herzog’s critically acclaimed works “After the Revolution” at Next Theatre and “4000 Miles” at Northlight.
Their latest collaboration, “The Great God Pan,” is an overwhelming success for the Next Theatre Company, an evocative, unforgettable production whose subject matter revolves around the fleeting nature of memory and how it provides the context for one’s actions, beliefs and identity.
Jamie (Brett Schneider), a New York journalist in his early 30’s, is blindsided by a get-together with a former childhood friend, Frank (Matt Hawkins). The vastly different paths their lives have taken are immediately evident. Jamie, clad in a hipster jacket and Beastie Boys tee, is aloof. Frank, meanwhile, is an imposing figure – tattooed, his head shaved, and possessing an underlying volatility that echoes Mr. Hawkins’ outstanding turn as Stanley Kowalski in the 2010 Writers’ Theatre production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The meeting is initially awkward and funny, but a more serious tension evolves when Frank turns the topic to his father and Jamie’s memory of the man. Frank is forming a criminal case against his father for sexually abusing him. Frank believes Jamie was also a victim, and seeks his help to build his case.
“I have a terrible memory,” Jamie says, unable to recall any abuse.
The play unfolds from this revelatory scene, after which the audience sees all of Jamie’s actions and relationships through the lens of his possible abuse. Ms. Senior deftly manages to keep the pacing taut, yet allows time for the characters’ interactions to breathe – for her actors to absorb and project as the action naturally manifests itself. She is a remarkable talent at the top of her game.
Jamie seeks clues to this mystery in the memories of the people he knew in his childhood. He speaks of the allegations with his parents (Jan Radcliff and James Leaming) and his and Frank’s former babysitter, Polly (Margaret Kustermann of the Next’s “The Luck of the Irish”). His parents’ response only provokes more questions – and possibly a justification for his emotional stagnation: They reveal past marital difficulties and were not outwardly affectionate toward their children. Polly’s words, however, spark something in Jamie’s memory that could ultimately provide the answers he seeks.
Ultimately, the relationship at the center of it all lies with Jamie and his newly pregnant girlfriend, Paige (Kristina Valada-Viars, who is excellent here), a social worker. Paige’s training, and especially her work with an anorexic patient (Halie Ecker – a fine young actress) whose refusal to talk about her sexual experiences may be relevant to her disease, perhaps give Paige the resources necessary to deal with Jamie, a man who says truly awful things when she presses him to talk about his feelings. Perhaps sexual abuse is the answer. Perhaps not. The ambiguous resolution will drive endless conversations long after the play has ended.
What truly elevates this production of “The “Great God Pan” is the natural dialogue – written by Ms. Herzog and spoken by this dynamic cast. It is as organic as the coffee beans that rest on the counter of scenic designer Courtney O’Neill’s detailed, multifaceted café.
“The Great God Pan” runs through May 11 at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Tickets are available at nexttheatre.org or 847-475-1875 x2. The performance is 75 minutes with no intermission.