Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's review of The Color Purple

Stacy Keach
Photo by Liz Lauren
A renowned artist, having taken on an important project, finds himself suddenly incapable of completing it. In one of the most bizarre instances of life imitating art, that was the real-life as well as textual situation on the 2017 opening night of Jim McGrath's Pamplona, starring Stacy Keach as Ernest Hemingway, in its initial production at the Goodman in May of last year. McGrath's one-man biographical play has the 59-year-old Hemingway battling writer's block as he attempts to write a commissioned LIFE magazine article on a famous Spanish bullfighter. Sitting in a Pamplona hotel room, "Papa" Hemingway is unable to type even an opening sentence that satisfies him.

On last year's press opening night, Keach got about 15 minutes into the script before he began to repeat sections of the text—circling three or four times around the same description of an encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald—before an invisible stage manager called over the sound system to ask Keach to hold and then leave the stage. Moments later, Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, who directed Pamplona, took the stage to explain that Keach was unwell and would be unable to continue the performance. Doctors concluded Keach had suffered a mild heart attack, causing him to lose memory. He was told to rest and recuperate and the remainder of the run was cancelled. Keach said in an interview he was back at work on other projects after two weeks and the production of Pamplona was rescheduled for this summer.

The best news is that Keach is back on stage, in good health and good form. His Hemingway is charming, quick to make a joke or lash out irascibly at his telephone callers or the unseen hotel guest in the next room. It's an always watchable performance and Keach's physical appearance, complete with grey beard, makes him an uncanny surrogate for the famed writer. That Keach is some 18 years older than Hemingway was at the time of the play's action says more about Keach's apparently top physical condition and Hemingway's fast living than anything. This time around, Keach is in complete control of the stage and commands it for the full 90 minutes of the one-act play.

Hemingway initially appears to be talking to himself as he stares at the blank page in his typewriter. He keeps talking as his mind wanders to various subjects and people of his past, and soon appears to be directly addressing the audience. He covers all the people and places you'd look forward to hearing about: Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the other "lost generation" ex-pats living in Paris during the 1920s; background on how he came to write his most famous novels, "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms"; his four wives.

Keach's Hemingway frequently shows amusement or sometimes mild regret at some of his past actions, but it's not until late in the play when he appears to be shaken by his memories. His recollections of his mother's insistence in dressing him as a young boy in girls' clothing and introducing him as her daughter draws his anger. Her feminization of him belies—or maybe led to—his hyper-masculine adult persona. We see Hemingway's genuine regret and guilt over his limited contact with his father, who committed suicide by shooting himself at home 31 years earlier. As Hemingway relives these intense and painful memories, he finds the inspiration for the opening of his LIFE magazine article on the bullfighter.

The sunny and expansive hotel room, as created on stage by scenic designer Kevin Depinet, aptly suggests Spain in autumn and provides ample space for the abundant projections of historical photos designed by Adam Flemming. It all makes for a neat and entertaining survey of the writer's life, but there's not much of an arc to McGrath's script. We don't sense that this period of solitary reflection has led to an epiphany for Hemingway, nor does it leave us with a cathartic sense of having discovered what made this great writer really tick. McGrath's point may be that all of Hemingway's life was in service of his writing. Perhaps the battle with his demons late in the play shows that relationships and experience were only useful as inspiration and not important of themselves.

Hemingway lived just 61 years, but it was a rich and full 61 years that may be too much to sort out in a 90-minute play. Regardless, if the opportunity to see Stacy Keach on stage for a full hour and a half or the fantasy of spending private time with a flesh and blood Hemingway sound irresistible, Pamplona won't disappoint.

Pamplona, through August 19, 2018, in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For further information and tickets, visit or call 312-443-3800.

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