Playwright John Patrick Shanley, despite a long career that includes winning an Academy Award for the screenplay to the 1987 Cher film “Moonstruck,” is perhaps best known these days for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt,” which was also turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Meryl Streep.
In his more recent play “Prodigal Son,” Shanley returns to many of the themes of “Doubt,” but with a much more personal, semi-autobiographical (and thus very male-centered) lens. Set in a New Hampshire boys prep school in the 1960s, “Prodigal Son” follows Shanley’s avatar Jim Quinn, a troubled boy from the Bronx given a scholarship to the school, as he tries to negotiate education, adolescence and the poetic yearning to find his place in the world.
Jarrott Productions’ new mounting of “Prodigal Son” captures the austerity of the cold New England climate as well as the heated passions of Jim’s youthfulness. As such, the play can be something of a mixed bag, with some scenes, redolent with simmering tension and emotional sensuality, evocative of Tennessee Williams, while others feature philosophical debates about the nature of faith that are more in the vein of George Bernard Shaw.
Director Bryan Bradford has created a production that seems to deliberately skirt this line, with reserved performances from the cast of adult teachers juxtaposed against young Sam Domino’s nuanced, troubled, tempestuous portrayal of Jim. Though Jim is prone to long philosophical proclamations and dramatic, emotional outbursts, Domino shines in the character’s quieter moments, showing us Jim’s painful loneliness and discomfort with his own body.
As various members of the school’s faculty, David R. Jarrott, Kelly Koonce and Holly Shupp Salas all provide much more dispassionate performances, which works best in scenes where they are set directly against Jim. Though only really given one scene in which to shine, Tucker Martin’s wistful boyishness as Jim’s roommate Austin helps to create the play’s strongest moments of youthful longing and idyll within such a cool, reserved setting.
That setting, itself, is created in large part from Chris Conard’s slightly impressionistic scenery and tightly focused lighting, as well as Glenda Wolfe’s period-perfect costume design.
As a text, “Prodigal Son” is very much in the tradition of the modernist drama of Arthur Miller, and in many ways it feels like a play not just about the 1960s but also from that era. It eschews the formalist theatrics of more contemporary works to focus instead on acute character study. Jarrott Productions’ version of the play intensifies that study through a dynamic performance from a young leading man, one to watch for in the Austin theatrical scene.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 15
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.