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Review: PRODIGAL at Streetcar Crowsnest

Review: PRODIGAL at Streetcar Crowsnest

Entertaining, quippy drama falls just shy of greatness

PRODIGAL, written and directed by The Howland Company's Paolo Santalucia and now playing at Crow's Theatre, takes place entirely in the kitchen of the wealthy Clark family over a weekend where the past comes home to roost. Patriarch Rowan Clark (Rick Roberts) finds out that he is about to come into a powerful political position, as his son Henry (Cameron Laurie) and daughter-in-law to be Sadie (Veronica Hortiguela) celebrate their engagement in the other room. Unfortunately for him, his prodigal son chooses that evening to return, mostly because he finds he's been cut off from the family funding to preserve their clean image under the added scrutiny politics will require.

Speaking of added scrutiny, PRODIGAL is the type of show that makes my dramaturg senses tingle: a very good play that shows serious acting talent and appealing writing flair, which could be truly great with a few fundamental tweaks.

There are many compelling reasons to see Prodigal. It is a solid, entertaining show. First of all, the acting is top-notch across the board. For example, as the dissolute gay son Edmund, (presumably a cheeky reference to Gloucester's bastard in King Lear), Dan Mousseau makes the most of his showpiece; his flamboyant entrance partway through the first act is a masterfully timed piece of substance-fueled physical comedy. Later, he spews bitchy quips as though he's at the Algonquin [Provincial Park] Round Table, stopping only to fold himself up into a vulnerable parcel of need for approval.

Nancy Palk as matriarch Marilyn has one of the less-showy parts, but she serves as a grounding presence, towering over her daughter Violet (Hallie Seline), with her baleful, knowing stare speaking more than a shout. Hortiguela as Sadie isn't afraid to refer to completely ridiculous things like a "sound bath" with practiced ease, as though everyone else knows exactly what she's talking about. While her new-agey girlboss persona is an easy, well-worn target, she brings a genuine sweetness to the character that's refreshing and three-dimensional. Roberts switches from warmth to ice in an instant, but is able to make you believe both feelings are real. And, as an outsider looking in to a very different world she one day wants to conquer, Shauna Thompson's Simone, Rowan's assistant, quietly and cannily observes the proceedings before revealing a different side of herself.

The play is busy, but the arc of each scene is well constructed, filled with lots of juicy lines about the boring rich (the audience howled at a well-placed jab about the type of people who love Niagara-on-the-Lake) and deeper, thematically-relevant monologues.

Even the design makes perfect sense. The kitchen (by Mark Hockin) is chic and tasteful, but also imposing and blandly colourless, a metaphor for the family that owns it. When Edmund shows up, lighting designer Logan Raju Cracknell splashes the white cabinetry with the coloured lights of a rave, twinning this incongruity to that of Edmund's presence in the home.

Prodigal is a tight, professional, thoughtful show that's a ton of fun to watch.

But.

The thing is that, through the whole two and a half hours, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen this play before: an upper-class, powerful white family with three damaged kids, all sniping at each other, unable to truly escape each other's orbit and be happy. Because this is such a familiar story (powerful philandering dad, frigid disappointed mom, suck-up spoiled son, angry feminist daughter, drunken black sheep), I yearned for a more original or specific backdrop. The past hangs over this family powerfully, but also shapelessly. Due to the broad and generic conflict, I found it difficult to truly care about the central characters or mourn the wasted potential between them. It made me feel there was never any potential at all, which lessened the tragedy.

While the one-liners are extremely funny, they do tend to hit the same notes repeatedly; some cuts could be made to provide more room for shading of family relationships. This particularly goes for the never-ending jabs about Frank's weight; I wasn't sure whether they were there to indicate that Edmund was just as much of an unreflective bully as the rest of his family, or if we were supposed to laugh. (The audience laughed.)

It was really the side characters, who got pushed to the side more and more as the main family's problems took over, that I wanted to know more about: the exasperated Black female chef Pauline (Meghan Swaby, commanding in a small part) who didn't want to pose for a "girl power" lifestyle blog and felt her husband Quentin (Jeff Yung) was taking her credit; the young immigrant Simone looking for political change who falls for the oldest trick in the book while trying to help her family and further her career; her brother Levi (Michael Ayres, a bundle of distractable nervous emotion), trying to escape his home country, where he must deny all that he is.

Particularly in the fireworks between Simone and Levi, these characters brought a more compelling dimension to the play's stated theme of exploring forgiveness and what that entails by looking at larger issues of apologies vs. reparations, and I wished their stories had been more prominent.

Finally, the play uses a pastor's sermons as a framing device; while rich in language and storytelling, they contain irreconcilable contradictions in terms of plot and theme that make them confusing.

Ironically, like a parent who practices "tough love," I'm being hard on PRODIGAL here because the acting, design, and writing set my expectations so high. Unlike Edmund's frosty family, however, I still believe the show is worthy of love and attention. Welcome home.

Photo of Dan Mousseau by Dahlia Katz



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Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Colu... (read more about this author)


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