Amy Herzog is one of the country’s hot young playwrights, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose plays 4000 Miles and After the Revolution have already been produced in South Florida.
That’s half of her small body of work. Now Zoetic Stage is closing out its season at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater with an intense, exquisite production of a third Herzog play, The Great God Pan (If a local theater decides to produce Belleville, we’ll have Herzog’s oeuvre covered.).
The Great God Pan unfolds in less than 90 minutes, but oh, what Herzog packs into that brisk running time. The suppression and recovery of memory, child sexual abuse, emotional minefields within families, the struggle to get careers going, how crisis turns into quicksand for a committed couple — all those things and more are woven into Herzog’s compelling script.
Director Stuart Meltzer gives the play a spare but powerful Brechtian staging, having the “offstage” actors stay on the sidelines to watch the in-the-round action along with the audience.
Cellist Aaron Merritt is seen and heard first, playing the prelude to J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major, and his bridging music throughout the show laces the production with melancholy. Jodi Dellaventura’s set is little more than a circular bed of wood chips, tree stumps and hanging fabric meant to suggest the metaphoric woods in which the protagonist finds himself lost. Herman G. Montero’s dappled lighting design gives the play an autumnal feeling, and Meltzer’s subtle sound design, with chirping birds and a creek’s trickling water, supplies its own kind of music.
Taking its title from a line (and the mythic Greek god) in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1860 poem A Musical Instrument, The Great God Pan swirls around an unsettling revelation. Jamie (Nicholas Richberg), a Brooklyn-based journalist, gets a visit from Frank (Matt Stabile), a childhood friend of sorts. The two haven’t seen each other since Frank’s family moved away when the boys were 7. Now Frank, a gay massage therapist who lives upstate with his partner, lays some heavy news on Jamie: He’s suing his father for sexually abusing him as a kid. And he thinks Jamie might have been a victim, too.
Though Jamie remembers nothing of the sort, seeds of doubt are planted and take root. He begins an investigation, talking to his mother Cathy (Angie Radosh) and father Doug (David Kwiat), workaholics with whom he’s not especially close. He clashes with his partner Paige (Aubrey Shavonn Kessler) over a more pressing and life-altering issue, but Frank’s news ripples through that relationship, too. Jamie also seeks out Polly (Barbara Bradshaw), an elderly woman whose memory is clouded by dementia, because she used to babysit Jamie and Frank, grandly reciting the Barrett Browning poem to them as she marched them down to play in their neighborhood creek.
Scenes between therapist Paige and her anorexic client Joelle (Mary Sansone), while well acted, seem extraneous. But to a man and woman, the cast delivers thoroughly engrossing performances, finely calibrated and rich with detail. Herzog’s play doesn’t neatly answer each question it raises. But it rivets the audience, thanks not just to provocative writing but to Zoetic’s exemplary production.