Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Photo courtesy of 9th Hour Theatre Company

Prodigal Son

By Shawn Macdonald

Production:  9th Hour Theatre Company

What is good about 9th Hour Theatre Company is their unflinching courage to tackle bold and often sensitive subjects. What is great about them is their consistently challenging and artistic story telling that manages to hold up a mirror to its audience, no matter the topic. Their new production, Prodigal Son by Shawn MacDonald, is inspired by the suffering of LGBTQ people of faith, but in director Jonathan Harris’ interpretation, the story becomes universal – it is about our imperfect world where individuals struggle with preconceived notions, embedded deeply through their upbringing. Unable to fight society’s rigid rules, carved in stone by prejudice and a blind faith in authority, they lash out on those close to them and end up losing themselves.

Prodigal Son is a complex story with numerous layers, all wrapped in each other. On the surface, it is about Peter Morrison, a young Catholic gay man, who is trying to reconcile his faith and his sexuality – two, as he has been taught all his life, absolutely incompatible sides of himself. But how can that be, when both are so intrinsically part of him? His faith is strong and pure, filled with beauty and poetry, giving and love. Yet, as a gay man, he is hated by God – the Church tells him so. Thus, living in the environment of preconceived ideas, he has to choose one persona in order to fit in. Paradoxically, in order to be who he is, he has to deny a part of himself.

Peter abandons his faith and goes to live with his dear, fun-loving and somewhat shallow partner. Still, a lot is missing in his life.  This creates confusion which leads to frustration, anger, unhappiness and depression. Shouldn’t we be whole in order to be content?

On his quest to heal himself, Peter meets a therapist torn up by her own frustration. The moment when she breaks and, forgetting to stay in her professional role, uncontrollably opens up to him, reveals to him the nature of the conflicting world he lives in, and helps him make one of the most important decisions – to go back home to his conservative Catholic family and to tell them the truth about himself. There, he finds his family changed. The story uncovers layer by layer, discovering the roots of numerous familial conflicts showing us that in the center of it there is just fear – the fear of rejection, fear of reaction, and fear of misunderstanding, disappointment and judgment. As simple as that – fear stands where love should be.

The play is beautifully written, although frequent transitions from past to present make it closer to a novel than a script. Fortunately, George Dutch’s dramaturgy combined with the direction of Jonathan Harris produce nothing short of magic. Transitions, due to the demands of script, are obvious but feel natural, thanks to the impeccable acting of a very talented cast. The whole project is clearly the product of dedicated team work. The connection between actors is so real that it seems more like a glimpse into a privite world than scenes at the stage. Speaking of acting, all I can say is that it is rare that so many talented actors come together in one play, especially that three of the actors are children! Those three, Alex Friesen Clara Silcoff and Jacob Segreto, who are surely, the future of Canada’s stage, coloured the coloured with the warmth of a happy home, the innocence of childhood and hopes for the future residing in young minds. Segreto is real as a young, vulnerable, artistic Peter whether being mad, sad, or elated by his love for God. As such, he is essential to understanding Peter as a character .There is an other-worldly quality in the scenes where he joins Kenny Hayes (adult Peter) on the stage.

The Morrison family, as a whole is natural and convincing in all stages of the play. The agony in Peter’s sister Lisa, skillfully portrayed by Rebecca Russell is unmistakable, and Cathy Nobleman’s unexpected transitions from housewife and caring mother to a frustrated and angry in interpreting the matriarch Marlene, is perfectly timed. Kenny Hayes as adult Peter is strong and determined either when confronting his father, excellently portrayed by Tom Charlebois, or when contrasted with his man-child brother. Shaun Toohey is very convincing as both Peter’s brother and Barclay, Peter’s tender, fun partner, but it’s in the latter that he really stands out and embodies the confusion and love inherent and required to accept a partner’s sudden change.

This is a beautiful play in all it segments. The minimal stage design flanked by one twinkling tree, intelligently made into a symbol of love, refuge and a place to hide is eye catching. The use of masks and frames as a creative and suggestive part of the story, and music that underlines important moments in the narrative help create an atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and imposed reality. The only problem is, perhaps due to the small space, that the music sometimes overpowers the actors, and in that way interferes with the narrative.

Prodigal Son is a play that transcends its initial topic. It talks about us and to us. It demands that we dig deep into our minds, to re-think our pre-conceived notions, and shows us possible ways to overcome our own frustrations and resolve our own conflicts. No wonder that the audience, was mute a few moments at the end of the show before the rewarding the cast with a long applause.

Reviewed by Rajka  Stefanowska, photo courtesy of   9th Hour theatre company


Artistic team:

Jonathan Harris – Director

George Dutch (Dramaturge and Assistant Director)

Shervon Amin (Make-up & Hair Designer)

Mary Blakley (Costume Designer)

Cameron A. Macdonald (Lighting Designer)

Susan Marriner (Graphic Designer)

Andrew Palangio (Sound Designer)

Scynthia A. Ross (Scenic Artist)

Teresa Seasons (Properties Designer)

Shysty Shane (Scenic Artist)

Margaret Smith (Composer)

Tanya Sylvester (Assistant Stage Manager)

Rachel-Dawn Wallace (Production Stage Manager)