Doug Moe

Stacy Keach as Ernest Hemingway, take two

Actor returns to Chicago after heart attack

Jim McGrath knew immediately that something was amiss.

It was May 30, 2017, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre on opening night of the world premiere of McGrath’s one-character play, “Pamplona,” starring his friend Stacy Keach as the author Ernest Hemingway.

Keach had missed some lines, repeated others. Audience members may have thought Keach’s confusion was part of the play — Hemingway in decline — but McGrath knew better.

Stacy Keach didn’t mess up lines.

“He just didn’t,” McGrath said last week, by phone from Los Angeles. “He’s a very precise actor. He had done a run through that afternoon that I attended. I knew right away something had physically happened to him. There was no other explanation. I was terrified it was a stroke.”

Before long, the play’s director, Robert Falls, came on stage to comfort Keach and announce the performance was over. The entire run was eventually cancelled, and in early June it was revealed Keach had suffered a minor heart attack on stage.

I was among many disappointed ticket holders who were delighted with the recent announcement that Keach and “Pamplona” will return to the Goodman this summer.

I figured the person most pleased by the play’s return would be the playwright, McGrath. He got word last October it was going to happen.

“It made me very, very happy,” McGrath said.

McGrath is a Dallas native who has written for film, TV and theater. He first met Keach in the late 1990s on the set of “Mike Hammer, Private Eye.” Keach was playing the detective and McGrath joined the show mid-season. They were behind on scripts, he recalled, and Keach would meet with the writers at the end of each day’s shoot to discuss the next day’s pages. The challenge was how to make them better?

“I just loved working in that way,” McGrath said. “Stacy had been an idol of mine since I was in college. I was an acting student myself. He was a great theater actor and could play anything. To actually sit with him and hear his ideas, and tailor them into something he would love doing — that was a big thrill.”

They talked, over the years, about Hemingway. Keach had portrayed the author in a 1980s TV miniseries. McGrath’s admiration for Hemingway began early. Sitting on the McGrath family’s coffee table while he was growing up was the famous 1952 Life magazine with Hemingway on the cover and “The Old Man and the Sea” reprinted in its entirety inside.  

McGrath, who lives in southern California, began writing the play in 2012. He struggled with the early drafts.

“He led a great American life,” McGrath said of Hemingway, but it was almost too much. Novelist, sportsman, world traveler, war correspondent, four times married, suicide — where to begin?

Keach gave McGrath the complete collection of Hemingway short stories on CD — read by Keach.

“I would listen to those in the car on a daily basis,” McGrath said. “Hearing the way he would deliver these different Hemingway moments in the stories, that was inspiring.”

What really brought the project into focus for McGrath was reading “The Dangerous Summer,” a posthumous Hemingway book McGrath had not previously read.

In 1959, on assignment for Life, Hemingway went to Spain to cover the competition between two brilliant matadors in a series of bullfights. (The Life articles formed the “Dangerous Summer” book, published more than 20 years after Hemingway’s death.)

Despite his heroic persona and recent successes — including being awarded Pulitzer and Nobel prizes — the author was beset by demons: declining health, exacerbated by heavy drinking; a failing marriage; and, most ominously, difficulty writing.

“That seemed to me to be a great moment to recreate on stage,” McGrath said.

The playwright places Hemingway in a Pamplona hotel room in that summer of 1959. Pamplona — the setting for one of Hemingway’s great triumphs, “The Sun Also Rises” — becomes the place where he must face his frailties.

McGrath spent six weeks in Chicago last spring during rehearsals and preview performances of “Pamplona.” The playwright calls it “one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had.”

He loved collaborating with Keach and Falls, the longtime artistic director at the Goodman.

“As a playwright,” McGrath said, “that’s kind of my favorite time. Working the script in rehearsal, especially if you’re working with people like Stacy and Robert, who have great instincts about how an audience will respond to something.”

There won’t be changes this time around — “Stacy wants the script to stay right where it is,” McGrath said — but it’s a pretty good bet the playwright will be in attendance when “Pamplona” has its second world premiere performance at the Goodman on July 10.

“Quite frankly,” Jim McGrath said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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