Playwright: Jim McGrath
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: GoodmanTheatre.org; 312-443-3800. Runs through: Aug. 19
Stacy Keach tried to bring his Hemingway show Pamplona to the Goodman Theatre's stage last year, but a mild heart attack felled him.
This year, in the one-man show that Jim McGrath wrote, Keach conjures a Hemingway who, in what will be the last year of his life, is easily sidetracked, quickly angered and unable to focus enough to finish ( or even much more than start ) his current project, a series for Life Magazine about bullfighting. He is a tired Hemingway, broken by the events of his later life including two plane crashes, serious health issues, and the apparent loss of his relationship with his fourth wife, Mary. Under frequent collaborator Robert Falls' direction, though, Keach portrays him with the kind of inner vigor that defined Hemingway.
The play takes place in a Spanish hotel room five years after Hemingway won his Nobel Prize. In the 90-minute production, Keach's Hemingway reveals both the triumphs of his life and its failures. It focuses on a single moment in his life: his frustration in trying to find the right hook with which to write that magazine article. It's a moment that allows Keach to explore the author's entire life and those who had the most effect on him. The term "tour de force" is often thrown around a bit too casually, but here I think it truly applies: Keach simply embodies the writer. The audience around me reacted viscerally to both his humorous moments and the stark realities of the author's life. It's not necessary to know anything at all about the latter to understand the play, though familiarity with Hemingway and his times might add depth to the experience.
Kevin Depinet designed the hotel roomits realistic accoutrements at odds with the forced perspective effect of its walls and windows, a surreal touch that allows Adam Flemming surfaces on which to project images of Hemingway's life and the people who made it interesting. The projections are truly a second character in the play, letting us see the various subjects Hemingway is speaking about and providing cityscapes for background with the help of some lovely lighting by Jesse Klug and with Michael Ross's original music setting the tone. Like all one-man shows, this one is far greater than the single character.
Keach is clearly in better health this time around, as he proves during this dynamic and fascinating character study. No matter what your relationship to Ernest Hemingway's writing might be, you'll find Keach's portrayal to be eye-opening. Although he covers no truly new ground in this playthe historical record is tremendously clearKeach and McGrath make the blunt-spoken, ultra-macho Hemingway into someone who is a joy to spend an evening with.