Review: Prodigal Son by Jarrott Productions
by Michael Meigs
Sam Domino is the reason to go see Prodigal Son, staged by Jarrott Productions at the cozy Trinity Street Theatre on the fourth floor of downtown's First Baptist Church at 901 Trinity Street. Domino has the brooding power and presence you might associate with James Dean, the young Brando or Paul Newman. Moody, isolated, struggling to find a moral compass in an alien environment, his character James Quinn incarnates the outsider teen who probably would have wound up as a gang leader in the Bronx. Instead he's a scholarship boy in an isolated New England prep school. His is a must-see performance. Not just for Domino's focus and his breath-taking mastery of the dialect, but also for an astonishing physicality and body consciousness. He slumps, sprawls, scowls, withholds his gaze, actions that always embody Quinn's mental state and angry control. To look at Domino and to hear his yearning fury, you might imagine that he was in a wartime foxhole or prisoner-of-war camp; although those around him seem reasonable and increasingly supportive over the two years shown here, from his entry at the age of 15 to his perhaps graduation at 17, James Quinn remains a work in turbulent progress.
Playwright John Patrick Shanley makes no secret of the fact that this is thinly disguised autobiography. Jarrott Productions includes his three-paragraph note, which reads in part, "This play is my account of that time, the period during which my whole life was being decided. It is a true story for the most part. The changes I've made have been to simplify or to make a point. Most of the names remain unchanged, or only slightly altered."
One can't but feel uneasy with this auto-hagiography. Of course, we are all the protagonists and stars of our own stories; but it takes a special arrogance to resurrect oneself onstage.
Prodigal Son bears a title that fits only very approximately to its subject matter. The parable is one of a wastrel's return and embrace by his family. Shanley's story is one of a brilliant kid unsupported by anyone. And it's less confessional than prosecutorial. Quinn/Shanley's offenses are minor, such as stealing a record collection, while most of those in his environment are depicted with various degrees of disdain. The exception is Quinn's roommate Austin Lord Schmitt, twee nephew of the founder of the school, the sole representative of bourgeois boyhood and foil to Quinn's surly and more deeply felt outlook on life and the world.
Director Bryan Bradford appears to have chosen to see others at the school in varied shades of boring. David Jarrott as headmaster/proprietor Carl Schmitt is locked down as tight as a Mosler safe, hiding behind a paternalism that seems unthinking; even his ethical dilemmas, posited in the context of New England Episopalianism, are curiously bloodless. Schmitt's wife Louise, played by Holly Shupp Salas, is similarly disengaged. Kelly Koonce plays teacher Alan Hoffman, who becomes Quinn's advocate and mentor. Neither director nor actor does enough to convincingly set up the man's growing attachment to his student; Koonce delivers the teacher as wooden and boring.
The whole lot of them are wraiths at the edges of Quinn's consciousness. That's probably an accurate assessment of playwright John Patrick Shanley's broodings, but it hands the action to Sam Domino on a silver platter. And bless him, he makes the most of it.
Bravo to dialect coach Amanda Cooley Davis, assuming that Domino's real vernacular is closer to yours and mine. Every syllable sounded authentic. Lighting by Chris Conrad and original music by Michael Jarrott supported the story well. But what was Conrad's idea in fabricating a twisty melty bookcase in an otherwise standard box set? It's a memory play, granted, and the protagonist is supposed to be a near-genius in letters, even if he's contemptuous of T.S. Eliot. Distorting a single set element is merely distracting unless it is somehow justified in the text or highlighted by the action.
Producer David Jarrott has brought Austin a series of intriguing contemporary dramas since the former radio host turned his attention seriously to narratives of the stage couple of years ago. Prodigal Son is taut and intense, a valid meditation and a vehicle for a lead actor whom I hope to see again soon on the Austin stage. I'm looking forward to the company's February-March staging of Zeller's The Father and its May-June production of Rebeck's Seminar.
September 21 - October 15, 2017
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
Prodigal Son plays September 21-October 15, 2017 at the Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity Street in the First Baptist Church in downtown Austin.
Performances are Thursday-Saturday evenings at 7:30pm; Sunday afternoons at 2:30pm; with an Industry Night performance on Monday, September 25th at 7:30pm. The play runs approximately 90-minutes with no intermission.
Ticket prices range from $15-$30 and reservations may be made at www.jarrottproductions.com.
Plenty of well-lighted street and garage parking.