In "The Great God Pan," the closely observed 2012 Amy Herzog play that opened Monday night at the Next Theatre in Evanston, a journalist named Jamie is summoned to a coffee shop by an old friend — a kid from the neighborhood whom the writer has not seen for 25 years, since both boys were 7 years old. This is not a meeting of benign nostalgia. The friend, Frank, clearly has lived a troubled life. And he delivers a startling message: He plans to pursue criminal charges against his own father, on the grounds that he sexually abused him.
Since Jamie hung out at Frank's house when he was a little kid, Frank (Matt Hawkins) is wondering whether Jamie (Brett Schneider) might also have been abused; he wants to know this partly because it might bolster his own case, thus making him more able to put his father away and protect others kids, and partly because, well, he just thinks Jamie ought to know.
Jamie says he remembers nothing of the kind.
That is the setup for "The Great God Pan" — the title comes from an Elizabeth Browning poem, a favorite of one of the baby sitters in the old neighborhood — now in its first Chicago-area production from the accomplished director Kimberly Senior. This is an uncommonly sensitive and subtle play that zeros in on how difficult it is as an adult to know what we have forgotten about our childhoods. It also probes how a nagging worry, like the one that befalls Jamie here, can impede on our most intimate and precious relationships.
Much of the stage time in "The Great God" is about how Jamie interacts with his girlfriend, Paige (Kristina Valada-Viars), a dancer who has reached the end of her career — which brings along issues of its own — and who is becoming increasingly frustrated by a guy who cannot fully commit to emotional intimacy.
Herzog, who also wrote "Belleville" and "After the Revolution," further understands the perils of being brought up by liberal parents of an academic gestalt (plenty of those in the old houses around Next's venue in Evanston). Jamie's folks, played here by Jan Radcliff and James Leaming, seem nice and surely are respectful of their son's privacy and career, but they have their own intimacy issues and, Jamie finds out only belatedly, a troubled past of their own.
Next has made something of a specialty of plays by this wise and nuanced playwright. This production, though is less sure-footed than the others and more squelched by a concept (the coffee shop that makes up the entire design is from Courtney O'Neill) than one typically finds with Senior's work. Most of the time, actors remain on the stage and scenes flow in repurposed parts of the cafe.
Aside from some difficulties there with brew and flow, another part of the problem is that Schneider, although a handsome and engaging presence, does not seem to know how to fully process the play's tricky demands. His character undergoes a series of daunting revelations within the 80-minute running time, and it's a measure of Herzog's sophistication that they never feel forced. But the actor has to show us a man undergoing rapid change; here, Schneider is more like a deer immobilized by blinding lights. You want to see him work through stuff in the active tense; he tends to let everything come to him.
As a result, one does not empathize as one should with this leading character, which makes the show seem more remote. The scenes between mother and son are similarly elliptical, with neither actor taking sufficient charge of the emotional moment. Sure, it's tough. These people can't connect. But inactivity can't be the default. The scenes between the Jamie and Paige are stronger, mostly because the unstinting Valada-Viars cuts through the pauses and is not afraid to be angry. She takes charge of all her scenes, including the excellent one between Paige (who is trying to make a living as a nutritional therapist) and an anorexic teen, Joelle (played, beautifully, by Halie Ecker).
Hawkins is very strong — perhaps too strong — as Frank, given that the powerful character he shows us and the awkward one the other characters describe seem at odds with one another. But I think Hawkins mostly is trying to get a rise out of Schneider, who needs to get with the program here and show us a character undergoing an internal tempest that his memory cannot quiet.
When: Through May 11
Where: Next Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $30-$45 at 847-475-1875 or nexttheatre.org