Theater

Belt-Daniels: 'Pamplona' a worthy performance of Hemingway

A year ago, I was excitedly preparing to go downtown to attend the world premiere of Jim McGrath’s “Pamplona,” a one-man Ernest Hemingway tour de force starring Stacy Keach. But then I got the word: Keach was ill.

What was believed to be the flu was in reality a heart attack. The run never materialized.

To Keach’s credit, he didn’t give up the project. He came back – roaring back – and his brilliant, mesmerizing performance as Hemingway in the last years of his life now runs until Aug. 19 at the Goodman Theatre (extended, with several performances already sold out). 

Keach might be familiar to audiences for his 1990s “The New Mike Hammer” TV detective series and, in fact, that is where Keach met playwright Jim McGrath. Goodman artistic director Robert Falls directed Keach in 2004’s “Finishing the Picture” and again in 2006 in the noteworthy “King Lear.” The perfect triad!

“Pamplona” is a conversation – a basic Hemingway primer unveiling the great novelist’s life in 1959. And what a time: J. Edgar Hoover has a file on him (because of Hemingway’s support of the Loyalists against Franco); the IRS is investigating him; his beloved fourth wife, Mary, has left him; he’s a slave to pills – kidney, heart, liver and pain – and he drinks.

Hemingway is holed up in a hotel in Pamplona, Spain, where phone calls from the hotel manager, Juanito, lend levity for the audience, and a distraction to Hemingway who mightily is trying to finish a story for Life magazine about two matadors involved in a fight to the finish.

Keach is incredible. He resembles the tortured genius; from the moment the lights came up on Keach seated at the typewriter, I knew he was Hemingway. His delivery of lines is absolutely flawless and flow seamlessly, one connection to another. Black-and-white projections on the hotel walls (designed by Adam Fleming) support and clarify the stories Hemingway engages us in.  

I fear I lack the adjectives needed to describe Keach’s performance; funny, tragic, hopeful and eloquent don’t seem adequate. Without question, Keach deserves the standing ovations and cheers he received. (I’ve never witnessed an audience leap to their feet so quickly). Perhaps it’s Keach’s persevering courage we applauded, as well – a 77-year-old heart attack survivor doing a never off the stage/one-man play six days a week. That’s an astonishing act beyond any theater’s acclaim.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director. She is a retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 special educator, a retired Raue Center for the Arts board member, and currently serves on the boards of Right-Center-Left Players Co-op and It’s Showtime. She also is a 2018 Woman of Distinction. 

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Pamplona”

WHEN: Through Aug. 19; 90 minutes with no intermission

WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago

COST: $30 to $90

INFO: goodmantheatre.org or 312-443-3800

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