Can a work of art be complete and unfinished at the same time? In her new play, The Great God Pan (Playwrights Horizons), Amy Herzog tells a complete story and yet leaves you to decide for yourself not only what might happen after the last scene, but also what happened before the story began. Ambiguity is her game; within its fascinating parade of alternate possibilities, she has packed a set of big, beautiful, perpetually troubling questions, moral and philosophical. The work is tiny (six characters, 85 minutes), but it runs deep.
Pan, the play’s presiding deity, is a woodland god, and Mark Wendland’s striking set, echoing the script’s noncommittal simplicity, puts an alluring woodland onstage. At once tempting and forbidding, its photo-realist tangle of green boughs compels the actors, in Carolyn Cantor’s taut, quietly pitch-perfect production, to stay downstage most of the time. Going deeper into the woods, it suggests, could be dangerous, no matter how enticing they look.
And, as Herzog makes clear, danger lurks everywhere. Another person’s mind, another family’s home, a parent’s or spouse’s seemingly rational decision might turn out to be an unexpectedly deep forest, holding perils we never knew existed. Somewhere in the middle of our life’s journey, we all, like Dante, find ourselves in a dark wood.
Certainly, Jamie (Jeremy Strong), Herzog’s central character, finds himself in one. The first scene shows him having a reluctant reunion with Frank (Keith Nobbs), a playmate from preschool, not seen since those days. Frank, who has led a troubled life, has ominous news: He is filing a lawsuit against his father for having sexually abused him in childhood. He has contacted Jamie, along with other figures from that time, in search of corroborating evidence. He thinks that possibly Jamie, too, may have been among his father’s victims.
Jamie recalls no such incident. “I have a terrible memory,” he tells Frank, a phrase he’ll use again—and a curious piece of self-definition, since Jamie, we shortly learn, is a journalist by trade, and memory is one of a journalist’s key tools. Though a former Fulbright Fellow who has just snagged a promising new writing job, Jamie, it quickly becomes clear, cuts an anomalous figure in this as in other respects. Along with a seemingly systematic distancing from his early memories, he has distanced himself, somewhat, from his parents, Cathy (Becky Ann Baker) and Doug (Peter Friedman), who still reside in the New Jersey college town where Jamie spent those childhood years he can’t remember.
He has a slightly distanced relationship, too, with his girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), a former dancer, sidelined by an injury, who has retrained herself and now practices as a licensed nutritionist while studying for a degree in social work. The six years that Jamie and Paige have spent together have included a fair amount of conflict, both open and concealed: quarrels; debates over whether to have a child and whether to marry; a period of sexual dysfunction on Jamie’s part. The last may or may not constitute evidence that the source of the relationship’s stress lies buried in his past.
On this as on other key points, Herzog firmly declines to make any pat decision. Much of The Great God Pan‘s power lies in her refusal to judge her characters, her rigorous insistence on letting them speak for themselves and sort their own way through what soon becomes, for Jamie, a trackless labyrinth full of frightening implications. Any chance remark or casual recollection might liberate memories he would rather leave unrecovered. Confronting his and Frank’s childhood babysitter, Polly (Joyce Van Patten), in the nursing home where she now resides, he begs her to tell him if the sofa in her house was “scratchy,” in a tone that carries all the anxiety Bluebeard’s eighth wife must have felt while unlocking the forbidden door.
While Jamie’s search takes him back to his parents’ generation, Paige’s new career pulls her forward, in parallel scenes, into battle with the next one. We see her engage in a low-key, half-unspoken confrontations with Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), an anorexic teenager whose compulsive weight-loss habits Paige is struggling to curb. Something’s troubling Joelle. It may or may not have to do with her parents, or with her conflicted 18-year-old feelings about sex; it may even have to do with her feelings for or about Paige. Or it might simply be about the cost of their sessions. Silent Joelle isn’t saying. Paige, anxious for a multitude of reasons to keep the relationship professional, makes as little headway toward solving Joelle’s problems as she and Jamie make toward solving their domestic situation.
Do human beings, in fact, ever “solve” their problems, or do they simply carry them and pass them along to their kids? Do early experiences mold our later lives, or are we wiser to slough them off once we’ve lived past them? Memory, a permanent adjunct of human life, can be a joy and a necessity; it can also be a gigantic stumbling block, creating patterns that forge crippling chains.
Varying her character pairings from scene to scene, Herzog shows, with delicacy, care, and compassion, how life operates. Each individual’s complexity, when juxtaposed with someone else’s, forms a doubly complex unit. Rather than dissipating, the complexity only increases. At the end, nothing has changed for Jamie, but everything has altered. He is still who he was, but he doesn’t know what might or might not have happened to make him who he is. And, like us, he still doesn’t know how that uncertainty might affect whom he becomes.
Pan, half goat and half god, embodies both playful, polymorphous sexuality and violent destruction. Herzog’s title comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Musical Instrument,” the first stanza of which, recited by Polly, has lodged in Jamie’s meager trove of recovered memories. Mrs. Browning’s poem, properly Victorian, omits explicit sexual imagery; it shows Pan committing violence on the plants at a river’s edge—in order to create a reed pipe, thus inventing instrumental music. Elizabeth Barrett, one notes, also had her troubles with a tyrannical father, whose interest in her may have been more than merely paternal. Like every exactingly chosen detail in Herzog’s play, the poem resonates with her script in both form and substance. Saluting the invention of music, Mrs. Browning made verbal music with a hidden sexual secret at its core. Herzog, employing the same source more explicitly and analytically, makes stage poetry.