Where: Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Aug. 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Jim McGrath’s “Pamplona” begins with Ernest Hemingway holed up in his usual hotel room in the titular Spanish town famous for bullfighting and the annual running of the bulls. It’s October 11, 1959, and he’s trying to write “The Fight,” an article about a “mano a mano” between two celebrated bullfighters, commissioned by “Life” magazine. But he has writer’s block and can’t even find the words he wants for the first sentence.
Though McGrath doesn’t clarify whether the 60-year-old Hemingway is talking to himself or the audience, the 90-minute show essentially is the author’s exercise in procrastination. Like so many one-person biographical plays, it packs in lots of information with relatively little insight, and the transitions—typically signaled by a phone call or the guy in the next room banging angrily on the wall—tend to be clunky.
What makes “Pamplona” worth seeing is Stacy Keach’s masterful performance as Hemingway. With the guidance of director Robert Falls, he brings the man to life with all his contradictions, machismo, insecurities, and lack of real self-awareness.
The triumph is all-the-more resonant because when Keach first took on the role in 2017, he had what was later diagnosed as a mild heart attack on opening night, and the show had to be stopped. But instead of abandoning the project, he’s returned with remarkable resilience after a year of recovery.
In a sense, this parallels a theme that deserves more emphasis in the script. Hemingway talks about his many illnesses and injuries, from liver damage and chronic back pain to the repercussions of two airline crashes on two consecutive days, but he never draws an explicit connection between his continued survival and the idea that writing keeps him going. It’s only implied in the closing moments, which is too bad, because the observations about the writer’s process are among the most interesting of the evening.
These observations are mostly limited to the obvious, however. He reads part of his letter to the Nobel Prize committee about writing being a lonely profession and complains that winning the prize in 1954 may have ruined his ability to work. He reminisces about his experiences in Paris in the 1920s and the “lost generation,” including his advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald about Zelda and “Tender is the Night” and his opinion of Gertrude Stein. Some of his best-known novels–”The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Old Man and the Sea”–come in for commentary about their creation and reception.
Hemingway also takes us on a non-chronological tour of quite a few loves and his four failed marriages, with the most recent, to Mary, being in the process of failing, apparently as a result of their trek around Spain to bullfights that summer. He’s more-or-less oblivious to this until he gets a letter from her and reluctantly admits he’s treated her and his other wives like sh*t. Rather than doing anything to make up, however, he calls the front desk to send up a bottle of booze, even though he’s supposed to lay off and explicitly told the clerk earlier to refuse any such requests.
The other area he touches on, of course, is his childhood in Oak Park and Michigan. He lets us know in no uncertain terms that he hated his mother, mainly it seems for dressing him up like a girl and calling him Ernestine when he was young, but also for bullying the father he loved for teaching him to hunt and fish. Brandishing a gun he keeps with him, he relates how his father prevented his grandfather from committing suicide, then committed suicide himself. Predictably, Hemingway’s own suicidal tendencies emerge, foreshadowing what he’ll do in about a year.
While Keach’s Hemingway is a good storyteller, the pace tends to lag during phone calls, such as one from his lawyer about his financial problems, and other artificial interruptions designed to work in details like his obsession that the FBI is after him and his concern about his property in Cuba. Happily, set designer Kevin Depinet’s evocative faded hotel room and Jesse Klug’s lighting help maintain the mood, and Adam Flemming’s projections on the walls conjure the people and places of the author’s past.
If you hope to find out what Hemingway was really like, you’re likely to be disappointed by “Pamplona.” But if you want to watch a fine actor in complete control of his craft, don’t miss it.