Forgetfulness as self-preservation in ‘God Pan’


Drew Wall and Alex Organ ‘The Great God Pan.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Frank (Drew Wall) and Jamie (Alex Organ) haven’t seen each other in 25 years, but have met at a Brooklyn coffeehouse to catch up on old times: Jamie — a buttoned-down journalist with a bad memory — still visits the boys’ old babysitter, who’s in an old-folks home; Frank — tatted and pierced — lives with his boyfriend in Upstate New York. It’s all just so much awkward reminiscing, until Frank mentions that he’s instituted a criminal case against his own father for molesting him, and other boys, when they were children. And, he says, since Jamie was one of his admitted victims, would he like to participate.

Say what, now?

Jamie balks at the suggestion. He has no recollection of being molested, and only vague memories of Frank’s dad at all. His mom (Cindy Beall) dismisses the suggestion out of hand; his girlfriend Paige (Natalie Young) assumes it means nothing. But Jamie’s dad (Bob Hess) is concerned. Doesn’t Jamie remember staying over at Frank’s house for several weeks at age 4? Might something have happened?

I don’t think it spoils anything to say (1) there’s never any proof or acknowledgment that Jamie was abused; and (2) there’s no doubt in our minds that he was.

Such is the intriguing premise of Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, a one-act mental gut-punch of a play — a mystery whose central conceit is shrouded only by man’s capacity for self-deception. But unlike, say, other similarly basically-unresolvable dramas like Death and the Maiden or even Extremities, revenge is not the thrust of the story; how we deal with the spectre of trauma is.

Screen shot 2016-04-28 at 12.05.43 PMHerzog approaches the material obliquely. We only learn elliptically about Jamie’s occasional impotence, his inward-looking homophobia (“you get weird around gay men” Paige observes), we infer his commitment issues (six years with Paige and still no engagement ring), and capacity to put off confronting unwelcome truths. “You listen, you don’t act,” Paige diagnoses; Jamie is a Hamlet for the post-modern world.

The play itself is almost the inverse of The Glass Menagerie: It doesn’t filter the past through the unreliable narrator’s memory, but rather sets up an opaque screen that the narrator himself cannot pierce.

Not all of it comes together. Herzog’s thesis can’t quite sustain the structure, and a side plot about Paige counseling a bulimic girl feels like wasted time. But you can’t deny the power of its message: That some things are worth forgetting.

It comes off strongly with Alex Organ in the lead. Organ is the artistic director of Second Thought, but he looks like he might be Chris Hemsworth’s understudy for the Thor movies: Tall, handsome, imposing but also vulnerable. He modulates the sine-curve of Jamie’s emotional journey like a surfer, exploding in denial only after smilingly dismissing the idea of being a victim while desperately trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.

He’s helped along by veterans like Beall and Hess, as well as Wall and Young (a mini-reunion of STT’s memorable Red Light Winter a few seasons back). Director Carson McCain also reinvents the Bryant Hall performance space with an angular but utilitarian and oddly nostalgic set designed by Jeffrey Schmidt. The dead branches of ominous, unseen trees linger through upstage windows, menacingly brooding over the action that flows briskly on the stage. Like Neil LaBute’s In a Forest Dark and Deep, The Great God Pan unfolds the psyche like a dark piece of origami, revealing its crevices while destroying what makes it whole.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2016.