It is unfortunate that Elgin Theatre Company’s production of “Prodigal Son” only has one week of performances left. As directed by Jonathan Horn, it’s a well-paced drama, worth seeing – full of redemption and destruction, monologues and dialogues.
It is written by John Patrick Shanley, who coincidentally is the recipient of an Academy Award for “Moonstruck” and the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Doubt,” and is author of the cult film “Joe Versus the Volcano.” “Prodigal Son” is largely autobiographical and set during the time when Shanley studied at the exclusive Thomas Moore Preparatory School for boys in New Hampshire (1965-68). Shanley was 15 at the time, from a blue-collar family in the Bronx, and was on a scholarship, after being thrown out of Cardinal Spellman High School. Just like his lead character, Jim Quinn.
With the use of two side platforms and an elevated middle platform, set designer John Pietrzyk has utilized the intimate eighth-floor space creatively and well. Ten scenes alternate between the headmaster’s office, a dining room, classroom and dorm room. Dee Korby’s and Joanna Wester’s costumes showcase the personalities of the five characters in the mid-‘60s.
Alexander Garcia, a Barrington High School junior, is a charismatic Jim Quinn. The amount of lines and emotions Garcia has to deliver, in addition to his stage time, is incredible, and he never falters. Garcia has the Bronx accent down, the swagger of Paul Simon’s song “The Boxer” (used as a precursor of what is to happen) capturing your interest and attention from the very second he steps into the spotlight, and faces the audience to ask: “Do you remember 15? It was a special, beautiful room … in hell.” Garcia introduces you to all the pain and confusion of a coming-of-age restless adolescent.
You root for Garcia’s character, despite his drinking, lying, stealing and beating up half the freshman class, and Garcia plays Jim with credible intelligence, torture and curiosity. (Wait till you hear his debate about Socrates, Thomas Moore and Jesus.) The headmaster proclaims Jim as the “most interesting mess this year,” and Garcia never wavers for a minute in the performance of a rebellious young man who longs to make something of himself, and has the most wondrous ideas. Garcia is also delightful as he pronounces the names of other people his character wishes were his own name, especially Rafael Sabatini (author of “Scaramouche”), or delivers his questioning Nazi poetry. Garcia is sullen, funny, wary, insecure, wounded and intense.
Another outstanding performance is that of Steven Delaney as headmaster Carl Schmitt. He portrays the idealist, a devout Catholic, strict and firm but also evincing a willingness to listen and a virtuous heart. His character admits he offered Jim a scholarship because: “I think you can do the work, and your mother cried on the phone.” Delaney has a superb ability to transition from an unwavering administrator (“The faculty is up in arms for your existence”) to a man with sensitivity (“I always see too late”).
The supporting ensemble features three capable actors. Appearing for the first time with ETC, Nadine Franklin is Louise Schmitt (in this reviewed performance); her portrayal is of a warm, compassionate, maternal woman. Louise is responsible for “The Waste Land” tutorial with Jim (even though he thinks “T.S. Eliot looks like an undertaker,” she presses on). Fortunately, her headmaster husband sincerely respects her opinion: (“He’s using poetry like a ladder to climb out of a terrible place”), and she brings out the best in Jim. I do wish there were more stage time between Garcia and Franklin and more relationship expansion beyond tea and sympathy, but that’s the playwright’s oversight.
In his second theatrical appearance ever, John Pietrzyk is Alan Hoffman, the English teacher who sees Jim’s potential. Pietrzyk’s portrayal is kindly and wise; he is one of the few who analyzes Quinn’s situation accurately. “You think everything is coming at you – everything is coming from you – you are the explosion.” He is calmly appreciative of Quinn’s intellect, and his need to be saved and supported. Hoffman has an affinity for sensitive youth, but in a sudden twist gets turned into a villain.
Liam Pietrzyk (in this reviewed performance) appears onstage with his father; this is his first dramatic play, as he normally appears in musicals. His character Austin provides some comedic relief in the discussion of besotted times with girls; he plays the headmaster’s nephew and math nerd well. Pietrzyk and Garcia have a thorny and understandable relationship as roommates.
Admittedly, I had some difficulty with Shanley’s play, particularly the last scene and the late-in-the-game twist, which is never clearly or fully developed. At times engrossing, other times lengthily overdone, there isn’t much levity in this portrayal of youth, nor does Shanley give much backstory to quickly released secrets or his relationship with his parents or with his older brother serving in Vietnam. But because of the ETC cast and staff, “Prodigal Son” is a production worth experiencing.
[The play contains sensitive material. The Sunday performance will be sign acted by Andrew Ross.]
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a retired Reading Recovery and special education teacher, who loves to direct and act; when not traveling with her husband, she can be found on stage, backstage and writing theater reviews somewhere.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Prodigal Son” presented by Elgin Theatre Company
WHERE: Elgin Art Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., Elgin
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24
COST: $20, $18 for students and seniors