Author: Amy Herzog. At: Next Theatre Company, 927 Noyes, Evanston. Tickets: 1-847-475-1875; www.nexttheatre.org; $30-$45. Runs through: May 11
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously referred to "known unknowns." Amy Herzog's play is about the opposite"unknown knowns"concerning what we remember and how we remember it, or "what didn't I know and when didn't I know it."
Jamie, a thirtysomething rising journalist, is at the center of The Great God Pan ( from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem about the god who destroys the reed to create music ). Jamie ( Brett Schneider ) may or may not have been sexually abused when he was four by a friend's father. We never find out for sure and it isn't Herzog's point. Rather, it's the way people remember or fail to remember. Jamie doesn't remember being abused, but he's forgotten a great deal about his early childhood. He cracks open upon learning27 years laterabout the possibility of the abuse having happened.
Jamie cracks open because he's emotionally distant from nearly everyone, especially his newly pregnant girlfriend of six years, Paige ( Kristina Valada-Viars ). Herzog provides reasons for his aloofness beyond possible sexual abuse. His seemingly-doting mom reveals, "We don't say 'I love you' very often," and Jamie and his best-buddy dad shake hands rather than hug.
Herzog boils all this down to an exceedingly trim 75 minutes by paying relatively little attention to anyone but Jamie, and then ringing down the curtain precipitously after Jamie's unexpected meltdown, leaving the audience to ponder at first whether or not the play is over. Something is missing. Herzog's dialogue is crisp and smart, with a phrase or idea in one scene picked up a scene or two later. This is highly skilled craftsmanship. But she shows us just enough of Paige to make her a character we need to see one more time, especially given Valada-Viars's vibrant and honest performance ( and radiant face ).
Tried-and-true director Kimberly Senior guides her cast with quiet authority, elevating even the smaller roles to lovely and telling cameos. I especially liked Halie Ecker as an anorexic studentso vulnerableand Matt Hawkins as Jamie's now-tattooed childhood friend who kick-starts the play. As Jamie, Schneider's personal warmth makes Jamie more sympathetic than his words and actions suggest, because Jamie is not all that appealing although we can appreciate his conflicts.
Scenic design Courtney O'Neill and lighting designer Heather Gilbert contribute a great deal in a clever unit set divided between a living room, a café and streetscape, the three locations blending into one as when folks in the living room stroll to the café to pour coffee as if it were the household kitchen.
The Great God Pan is a smart play and a smart, well-acted production. Herzog leaves a character chad or two hanging, but serves up lots o' food for thought.