Prodigal Son is an autobiographical play in one act by John Patrick Shanley (Doubt: A Parable, Moonstruck) in which the author examines his two years at Thomas More Prepatory School, a proper Roman Catholic boy's academy in New Hampshire, beginning in 1965.
His central character, Jim Quinn, appears to be a troubled kid when in fact, he is just Everykid from the streets of Bronx, New York. He disdains the rules and plays by only his own. He habitually gets himself into trouble without forethought, then lies to avoid the consequences. He steals, fights, and refuses to profess a profound belief in a supreme God. This last is perhaps the severest infraction of the rules. He is perpetually in danger of expulsion from some recent scandal. And yet, he wants nothing more than to remain at the school despite his unruly nature.
Jim is seen at the beginning schmoozing his way through the admissions interview with Headmaster Carl Schmitt, with streetwise mannerisms and Bronx accent. Schmitt admits the boy, almost reluctantly. Beneath his tough exterior lies the passion and free-thinking spirit of a true poet. He feels the plight of mankind deeply. He evaluates the philosophies of those around him, accepting nothing unquestioningly. He refuses to revere the poet T. S. Eliot, as all others do, because he has seen a picture and does not like the way the man looks.
Jarrott's production of Prodigal Son is an ideal vehicle for the considerable talents of young Austinite Sam Domino, recently seen in Austin-area productions of Exit 27 and Cages. Domino navigates among the extremes of deviant behavior and impassioned pondering on the condition of mankind in a way that makes us feel we know this guy. He is an object of both fondness and fear. Character development is essential to the role, and the actor delivers it in every moment.
The play's four other characters provide fine support, including show producer David Jarrott as Headmaster Schmitt, Kelly Koonz as teacher Alan Hoffman who takes particular interest in Quinn, Holly Shupp Salas as Louise Schmitt, teacher of English and the Headmaster's wife, and fellow student Austin Lord Schmitt, son of the Headmaster and Louise. There are no weak performances among any of the cast, but this play is written to spotlight the talents of the actor portraying Jim, and Domino rises to the challenge.
Worthy of mention also is the innovative set and lighting design of Chris Conrad. It places us in a version of the traditional prep school created in the mind of its central character, one that is appealing to the artistic sense yet reflects a stodginess of the prestigious parochial school.
The play itself is a cathartic expression of the playwright's own experiences. It is told in flashback, something the playwright should remind us more frequently, lest the final scenes seem muddled and disjointed. Jim Quinn's status at the school remains uncertain throughout. The threat of expulsion, present all the way to graduation day, is the main conflict, leaving the weak plot to rely on the actors' talents to rescue it. Quinn's relationship with Alan Hoffman takes an odd late turn that is unnecessary for the central story. One very good thing about the script is that it forces us to see morality through Quinn's eyes. It suggests that the martyr is complicit in his own martyrdom. Overall, this is a case in which the cast and production company are stronger than the script, and make it well worth seeing.