Jarrott Productions' Prodigal Son
The opposing worlds of John Patrick Shanley's textured script are conjured with powerful stillness and restless energy
Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, Fri., Sept. 29, 2017
If John Patrick Shanley's Prodigal Son seems indulgent, that's because it is – in all the right ways. A note from the playwright in the program reveals that the play is almost wholly autobiographical, recalling Shanley's days as a troubled teen from the Bronx in a private boarding school, a love of poetry and literature hidden within a violent, turbulent youth. Here, Shanley recalls his experience in a deeply textured script, handled well by a skilled cast.
As Jim Quinn (Shanley's youthful doppelgänger), recent UT grad Sam Domino shows off not only a near-perfect Bronx accent, but also the appropriate mannerisms to go with it – a feat often lacking in dialect-specific work. Add to this a deep commitment to the role, and Domino presents a beautifully crafted character. He's a pleasure to watch – almost as if Will Hunting had been written into Dead Poets Society, if you can wrap your head around that.
David R. Jarrott gives a thoughtful performance as Carl Schmitt, the school's headmaster. Jarrott remains somber yet energetic, his clear voice booming though rarely raised beyond the tight confines of his reserved character. Strong performances by Kelly Koonce as a liberal teacher in Jim's corner, Tucker Martin as a fellow classmate, and Holly Shupp Salas as Louise Schmitt, the headmaster's wife, round out the cast.
Director Bryan Bradford's carefully considered work is of note, never steering his cast away from the power of stillness and silence. In a memorable moment, Jarrott's character arrives home after a hard day, greeted by Shupp Salas' Louise, and a tight, soundless dance occurs, informing the lives of both characters as she takes first his overcoat, then jacket, then bag, whisking them away to another room and returning with dinner, to which they both sit in silence for several moments. When words are finally spoken, they are bereft of greeting or warmth; simply a matter-of-factness about the day. These moments of activated reservation stand in stark contrast to Domino's constant motion and restless energy – truly there are two worlds at play here.
Chris Conard's lighting and stylized set design complement the story beautifully. Several books dangle at random from the ceiling, a vision of frozen violence and chaos, mirroring Quinn's personality and passion. A large bookcase tilts slightly askew like the minds of the play's denizens – just enough to make it all interesting. And rather than traditional right angles, the walls curve at their base into the floor – a smooth transition blurring the boundaries between the world that grounds Jim and the walls that keep him bound.
My only beef with the production is admittedly finicky: Michael Jarrott's original music used during scene changes is a bit repetitive and distracting, not quite fitting with the overall aura of the play. It's not enough to pull one completely out of the world, but it is enough to notice. And the choice of a cloying pop song as the show's denouement is a cocktail onion rather than a cherry on top of an otherwise sumptuous sundae of a script.
Still, I'm reminded of the time I caught Shanley's Doubt on Broadway in 2005. It was a fine piece of theatre: simple set, wonderful direction, and great actors breathing life into a rich text. I thought to myself, "This is Broadway. Broadway. We're doing work just as good, if not better, in Austin."
With great satisfaction, I report that Shanley's Prodigal Son, as staged by Jarrott Productions, proves me 99.9% right.
Prodigal SonTrinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity
Through Oct. 15
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.