Amy Herzog speaks well for herself. In “The Great God Pan,” the scribe takes a serious topic — the long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse — and addresses it with intelligence and sensitivity. Her voice carries far because she writes in a clear, direct manner for characters who are recognizably human and engagingly sympathetic. But while this problem play is substantive enough to land with an impact, it’s not particularly well served by this sluggish production.
As she demonstrated in “4000 Miles,” Herzog seems to have a soft spot for immature, emotionally dammed-up men who need to be coddled and coaxed — or shocked — into growing up.
Jamie (Jeremy Strong), a man-child of 32, gets the shock treatment when a childhood friend named Frank (Keith Nobbs) searches him out to deliver some disturbing news. Frank is in the process of suing his own father for sexual abuse, and he’s wondering if Jamie has any childhood memories of having also been abused when they were growing up.
Although Jamie dismisses the very notion that he might have been the victim of child abuse, his long-time companion but not-quite wife, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), wonders whether a childhood trauma like that might explain a few things about Jamie. His fear of commitment, for one thing. After living with Paige for six years, he’s still wary of marriage and so spooked by the idea of becoming a parent that he urges Paige to abort the child she’s carrying. And then there’s the matter of Jamie’s sexual dysfunction …
Once he allows himself to entertain the idea that he may have been victimized by a sexual predator, Jamie undertakes a brave if tentative investigation into his past. In an effort to uncover memories that he might have buried, he circumspectly questions his father (Peter Friedman), his mother (Becky Ann Baker), and his beloved old baby sitter, Polly (Joyce Van Patten, a seasoned thesp who knows what to do with this role and proceeds to do it), who is hanging on in a nursing home.
Each of these encounters takes Jamie deeper into his own mind and presumably changes him in some way. But Strong’s perf is so internalized and so physically muted, it’s a challenge to read anything in his rigidly composed facial expressions.
Herzog makes smart work of these two-handed scenes, which incrementally advance the plot while amping up the tension. The play is not as schematic as it sounds, however, because the scribe takes care to give all the characters a share in Jamie’s terrible journey of self-discovery, which leads them to insights about their own buried lives.
That aspect of the play can be seen in the carefully crafted scenes between Paige, a therapist who treats eating disorders, and Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), a young client whose struggle with anorexia is painfully touch-and-go. Goldberg brings a warming passion to Paige’s earnest but unwanted efforts to help her floundering client (played with lovely simplicity by Wilhelmi) and her lost lover — both of them well out of the emotional reach of a helping hand. And Wilhelmi, who looks to be barely out of school, is beautifully self-possessed and quite touching in a difficult role.
One drawback of the production is that these scenes move at a glacial pace under Carolyn Cantor’s lead-footed helming. Although the play’s episodic structure makes it difficult to stage, Mark Wendland’s smothering set of an impressionistic forest makes absolutely no sense except as a playground for the metaphorical Pan, that horny pagan god who could never learn to keep his dirty hands to himself.