“Do you remember 15? For me, it was a special, beautiful room in hell.”
“Prodigal Son” by John Patrick Shanley, in performance this month by The Actors’ Group, begins and ends with those poignant lines.
The play centers on Jim, a gifted but troubled student from the rough side of town, who is given a scholarship to an elite Catholic school, largely because of his mother’s pleading and the headmaster’s weakness for “James,” as he calls him. A misfit on many levels, Jim struggles but knows this is his last chance.
>> Where: Brad Powell Theatre, 650 Iwilei Road, Suite 101
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; also 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 24
>> Cost: $30 general admission; $25 for seniors, $20 for students and military
>> Info: 722-6941, email@example.com, taghawaii.net
Named after the Biblical tale (Luke 15:11-32), “Prodigal Son” explores ways of redemption, incorporating a plethora of literary references while sweeping through scores of topics from the roots of misbehavior and liberal bias in education to tensions between social classes, the role of educators, predatory betrayal, whether genius excuses bad behavior and more.
But the core tenet is that people have to be seen as good before they can be good.
“Prodigal Son” is largely autobiographical, a re-framing of Shanley’s own growing pains, and its structure mimics the fickleness of memory: The playwright speaks through his 15-year-old character; time lurches; past and present blur; and the impact of his shameful behavior is glossed over. By the end, you wonder whether it is Shanley who is seeking redemption.
Describing the play makes it sound ponderously intellectual, but it’s not. Shanley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Doubt: A Parable” and an Academy Award for his “Moonstruck” screenplay, has created a thoroughly engaging work well worth seeing. Catching the literary references is an added bonus but not essential.
TAG’s intimate theater and clever visual design create an intensity that strengthens its impact.
The set is a tight little room within our memories, with every piece symbolic as a dream: stairs to a corner, table and chairs littered with books and chess set, walls covered in ragged- edged mirrors. Throughout, Jim reads books and scrawls graffiti on mirrors in order to peer into his soul, trying to figure out who he is. Even books reflect back on him.
“Prodigal Son” has only one lead role, Jim; the other four serve as human mirrors.
As Jim, Aaron Klein captures that lanky awkwardness of adolescence. Although more poet than explosive hoodlum, Klein conveys the arrogant, insecure questioning and aggressive defensiveness of a young man finding his way.
Rebecca Lea McCarthy is excellent as Jim’s would-be savior, Mrs. Hoffman, who is sharp, brash and, as Jim puts it, “murky.” The role was written male, but works equally well female, and McCarthy deftly navigates Shanley’s rather abrupt plot reveal near the end.
Alexander Dekker makes an appealing Austin, Jim’s nerdy roommate who finds him cool but incomprehensible. Jesse Mumma feels his way through as the emotionally adrift headmaster, Mr. Schmidt, who can neither embrace nor let Jim go, and Marty Wong provides a calm center of grief and understanding as Mrs. Schmidt, who sees neither Jim nor her son but the person she hoped they would be.
TAG opts for having the actors use accents — Bronx, Southern, New England — but they are inconsistent and unnecessary, the point of “Prodigal Son” being that Jim’s story happens everywhere, every day.
One of the great joys of “Prodigal Son” is hearing Shanley’s skill with language. He hones phrases to a razor’s edge, delivering line after line that hits home: “I am nothing, I have nothing, and the world doesn’t know me”; “He’s using poetry to climb out of some dark place”; “You’re not the destruction, you’re the explosion.”
In the closing scene, Shanley attempts a quintet, all five characters speaking from their own point of view. Borrowed from opera, the technique works more gracefully in music, but it is an interesting scene in which past and present converge in climax.
“Prodigal Son” has minimal obscenity and deals with mature themes, including death, suicide and sexual harassment, without being explicit. Running time is 1 hour 40 minutes without intermission.