At the Goodman Owen Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—It’s good to see Stacy Keach back on the Goodman Owen Theatre stage finally carrying off his one-man play called “Pamplona,” about the winding down of Ernest Hemingway’s life. Last spring, early in his Goodman opening night performance, Keach seemed to fall into a daze and had to be escorted from the stage. Moments later a voice from off stage announced that Keach was not well and the remainder of the opening night performance was canceled.
Eventually we learned that Keach had suffered a minor heart attack on stage that could have been critical had he not been taken to the hospital that night for an examination. A year later, Keach has elected to “climb back on the horse” and perform “Pamplona” as originally advertised.
The new opening night went very well for Keach, a dominating actor with a close physical resemblance to the great writer. The acting is better than the play, receiving its world premiere. The show runs a slender 80 minutes without an intermission, but the role still requires some heavy dramatic lifting from the star, not to mention considerable physical stamina. At the curtain call, Keach exuded an almost gleeful feeling, doubtless rejoicing inwardly that he came through so triumphantly. The audience responded with a rousing standing ovation that conveyed the crowd’s appreciation for the actor’s treating them to so much grace under pressure.
The play is presented in real time in a hotel room in Pamplona, that Spanish town internationally famous for the annual running of the bulls. At the time of the play, Hemingway had about two years to live before his suicide in 1961 that shocked the world. The man is at the end of his tether. He is suffering from a monumental writer’s block, he urgently needs money, he has a drinking problem, and his marital life is in a shambles.
The format of McGrath’s play is a monologue Hemingway speaks directly to the audience when he isn’t on the phone or barking at the man in the adjoining room who objects to Hemingway’s playing loud music. A large portion of the play is a walk down memory lane with Hemingway reminiscing about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the “Lost Generation” gang kicking up their heels in Paris during the 1920’s. There are recollections of Hemingway’s friendships with the famous bullfighters Antonio Ordonez and Luis Miguel Dominguin. We listen to memories of his war experiences of the Spanish civil war and the two world wars along with his fraught relationships with four wives, all of whom he seemed to treat badly.
The playwright offers considerable humor, much of it at Hemingway’s expense. And therein lies a major problem. We expect to spend time with a larger than life rough and tumble genius but mostly we chuckle at the man’s foibles. We know that Hemingway has only a short time to life before his death but there is little sense of tragedy in the air.
The Hemingway of “Pamplona” is a lovable bear of a man who doesn’t quite measure up to the legend who was one of the seminal cultural figures of the first half of the 20th century. Only in the play’s final minutes does the play get serious, as Hemingway recounts with bitterness his childhood with a weak father (who committed suicide) and a mother who insisted on dressing him up as a little girl and calling him Ernestine. Perhaps this claustrophobic and oppressive childhood shaped Hemingway’s macho adult life of reckless danger. It would have been worth exploring and certainly given the play more gravitas instead of a portrait of Hemingway lite.
Still, Keach, working with director Robert Falls, keeps us entertained. Adam Flemming’s film and projection designs add visual variety to basically a static play. Hemingway led a roller coaster life that ended in self-destruction. I would have liked to leave the theater knowing more about the writer’s inner workings. We get much of Hemingway’s bravado but not much of his inner life. On the other hand, how much insight and high drama can a viewer rightfully expect in 80 minutes? What we do get is good enough for a diverting short evening. Now that Keach is again in performing shape, let’s get him back in a classic worthy of his mettle. Prospero in “The Tempest” anyone?
The show gets a rating ofstars.
“Pamplona”” runs through August 19 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $90. Visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Pamplona or call 312 443 3800.