By Thom deMartino
Great art is not produced without great sacrifice: and the greatest art digs deep, even at the risk of opening old wounds – in a hunt to find the beauty in the darkness, something universal in our shared human experience. And do we not reap the greatest rewards when we have the courage to listen, to be vulnerable … to challenge ourselves to face our deepest anxieties and fears?
Something new and equally challenging has come to the Golden West College Mainstage Theater: arising in the form of “The Great God Pan” (the title stemming from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) This Tom Amen-directed production is a story of buried pasts and memories that remain unquiet, ready to unexpectedly pull themselves from their unmarked and forgotten graves, to wreak havoc upon the lives of those who try so desperately to forget them.
Jamie (Matthew Cobb) is a working writer, plying his trade in New York City, when he gets an unexpected message from an old childhood friend, Frank (Mason Meskell). When the pair meets up after a 20-year hiatus, the cool and reserved journalist’s memories of his youth are tested – shaken and cast into doubt by his former companion’s disturbing revelations.
His own life is not idyllic, as he’s embroiled in a rough patch in his relationship with his long-term girlfriend Paige (Carolyn Feres): a former professional dancer turned nutritionist after suffering an injury, who is herself struggling with memories and regrets in her past and unexpected challenges in the present. The pair are making an effort, but communication can be demanding … particularly with an emotionally unavailable partner.
But as is often the case, the psyche of the adult is a result of the combination of nature and nurture in childhood … mirroring the semblance of those we learned from. While Jamie’s mother and father, Cathy and Doug (real-life couple Carrie and Brad Vinikow, bringing an authentic chemistry to their roles) are loving and supportive of their son in the present, there is still a sense of reserved emotion from them, particularly Cathy, who seems strangely unperturbed when Jamie divulges his childhood companion’s revelation.
Answers to the hazy questions of memory are not easily answered, even when the troubled writer consults with his aging, kind-hearted babysitter Polly (Kathleen Fabry), now in her sunset years and often lost in a gentle labyrinthine fog of dementia.
No one can truly know the heart or mind of another: and it’s up to Jamie to choose whether to look deep within himself — and learn what will emerge from this dark night of his own soul.
“The Great God Pan” is not the kind of escapist entertainment that some may be accustomed to. What director Tom Amen and the cast have brought to the audience is a strong, beautiful production, that rings of realism and authenticity: we know these characters, these people. Sometimes shades of them are reflected in the people in our own personal lives: sometimes we recognize aspects of Jamie, Paige and others, within ourselves.
Cobb’s Jamie is not unsympathetic, but impatient, often emotionally removed when forced to face what he doesn’t want to address; but in being flawed, we see that humanity in him, as he struggles to contend with the perspective-changing news he’s received — whether he can accept, and grow past it. Feres’ Paige is worn, exasperated with trying to communicate with her partner — who, while dealing with his own struggles (that he keeps compartmentalized from her), is oblivious to her own conflicts as she herself tries to grow and move past the former career that had been her identity, until her injury took it all away.
Besides the moving, stand-out performances of the leads, there are striking moments by the other actors: the haunted expression by mother Cathy (Carrie Vinikow), on the phone as she tells her son that they so rarely said “I love you” in their family, then ending the call with a vague “take care”; the conflict and frustration within Paige’s client Joelle (Marisa Schlichtman, in a moving and stand-out portrayal), as the anorexic young woman struggling with her guilt and shame at gaining or not gaining enough weight; and the vulnerability of Meskell’s Frank, so hesitant and regretful in having to tell his childhood friend this news, knowing it will likely change his life forever.
It should be mentioned that as with many of the Golden West College productions, the Tim Mueller-designed set is almost a character unto itself: minimalist, so as not to distract, but instead amplify the performances of the players; with a design meant to reflect both the emotions of the characters (with the help of Sigrid Hammer Wolf’s lighting) and the ripples created by the stone of Franks revelation, plunged into the stagnant pool of Jamie’s life.
“The Great God Pan” is a lesson in the suffering that goes into one’s art, that makes it ring very true and very human, something we can see reflected in our own lives. It is moving, tragic, troubling, beautiful, and ultimately optimistic in illustrating the courage to grow and move past the things in our past, that we refuse to let define us.
“The Great God Pan” stars Matthew Cobb, Carolyn Feres and Carrie Vinikow in this moving production of old ghosts from the past, forcing us to address who we will become in the future. Playing through March 17 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St., Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at 714-895-8150, x1 or at www.gwctheater.com. Some mature language and themes. Four stars.
Categories: Arts & Leisure