“It seems like with every war, there’s a woman and a book.”
That sentence provides a darn good summary of Ernest Hemingway’s life, and thus of “Pamplona,” the engaging one-man bio-play about the famed author, written by Jim McGrath, directed by Robert Falls, and starring actor Stacy Keach.
When: Through August 19
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Run time: 80 minutes, with no intermission
An air of personal triumph surrounds this entire production. On its original opening night in 2017 at the Goodman Theatre, Keach suffered (it was later revealed) a heart attack. He tried to keep going, but the performance was halted midstream and the rest of the run canceled. After a year-plus of recuperation, Keach puts forward a hearty and genuinely involving performance, wrapping us up in the persona of a 20th century giant who still stands out for his combination of machismo and artistic sensitivity.
The performance history, and the sense of human fragility and resilience it necessarily evokes, actually helps the story a bit, as Hemingway himself was known for injury and recovery. McGrath’s non-linear recounting of Hemingway’s life includes — as part of or in addition to the wars, women, and books — his severe wounding during World War I, the punishment he took from being gored by a bull and then dragged around for several minutes, and damage sustained by the two plane crashes he survived on two consecutive days.
What the performance doesn’t include, though, is a particularly satisfying theatrical conceit.
Playwright McGrath situates us in 1959, near the end of Hemingway’s life. He is alone in a hotel in Pamplona, Spain — famous for the running of the bulls — as he struggles to write a piece for Life Magazine on the battle between two legendary matadors. Suffering from writer’s block, Hemingway is further perturbed by interruptions from a pesky next-door neighbor, and phone calls from a lawyer and a friend that serve as a means of enabling him to flash annoyance and transition to another part of the story.
The perspective isn’t really a problem, but for the first few minutes of the show we’re actually unsure whether Hemingway is supposed to be talking to us, or to himself. That tension is never fully resolved, but both Falls and Keach are skilled enough to make it matter less and less and to move from one to the other as the moment demands. “Pamplona” is hardly unique in this regard; one-person biographical plays, as a genre, necessarily struggle with how to enable the character to soliloquize. But that is in essence the aesthetic challenge of the form, and “Pamplona” evades it rather than taking it on.
Another missing component, and certainly related to the first, is that the piece has the generality of an encyclopedia page. McGrath stuffs in a whole lot of information about Hemingway’s epic life — including his childhood years in Oak Park, Illinois, where he was born, and northern Michigan, where his father taught him to fish and hunt. We get a decent summary of each of his four marriages, a greatest hits list of his acts of courage as a journalist covering the multiple wars of the war-torn era, and references aplenty to the famous artists he knew (Paris in the ’20s!) as well as the characters in his books and the people who inspired them. He’s helped along in all this by photographic projections designed by Adam Flemming, which cover the walls of Kevin Depinet’s sumptuous perspective set.
But McGrath never quite hits on a core concern, a genuine take on who Hemingway was. Yes, we get that he was a daredevil of sorts, with a passion for women and a nasty habit of mistreating them. The Goodman now has two shows running simultaneously — “Pamplona” and “Support Group for Men” — which take on the concept of performative masculinity, but from different eras. Hemingway’s misogyny gets explained a bit, but not excused, by detailing Hemingway’s surprisingly intense hatred of his own mother. It’s when she’s mentioned that we see Keach physically react with underlying disgust. But the writing on this feels like amateur psychologizing.
As Hemingway battles with himself to find the perfect words to express the glare in a matador’s eyes, we also get the sense of his well-known prose style —spare but precise. But Hemingway’s inner pain, the suffering that would ultimately cause him to kill himself? That gets washed away with cavalier bravado that is all surface and no depth.
McGrath’s play tends to retreat to somewhat easy humor even when dealing with something as potentially significant as Hemingway’s back pain; all that physical damage took its toll, after all. And although Hemingway himself might never have associated his own father’s suicide with mental illness, that fact does beg a bit more of a contemporary twist (particularly given the recent spate of celebrity suicides), an exploration of how it may have driven both Hemingway’s success and failures.
Wars, women and books make for a good story, and Keach makes for a terrific Hemingway. And maybe it’s sufficient to intrigue audiences enough to read or re-read the works of the worthy subject. But “Pamplona” seems satisfied with the image of Hemingway, rather than plumbing for something more.