Playwright John Patrick Shanley describes 15 as a "special, beautiful room. In hell," in Prodigal Son, now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre. The play sets a teenage boy's search for identity against a background of the complex mores and philosophies in a small private Catholic preparatory school. The result is a multifaceted coming-of-age story in which the adults are revealed to be adrift in their own internal seas of chaos at least as much as the adolescents.
Prodigal Son is unashamedly based on the playwright's own adolescence and checkered academic history. The play is structured as a series of memories in which we are invited to witness key events during a volatile two years at the Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire through the eyes of a teenage boy and reflected back through the adults that inhabited his world at that time.
We first meet 15-year-old Jim Quinn (William English III) as he is discussing with the school's principal (Gary Sommers) the circumstances that led to his scholarship to Thomas More despite so-so grades and a suspension from his previous school in the Bronx for declaring disbelief in God. Evidently, this is a Catholic school with a high level of tolerance for rebellious youth, as the discussion quickly evolves into a debate on the concepts of good and evil, self-centeredness and altruism, and Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.
What we do learn from this character-defining baseline is that Jim was "discovered" at an Opus Dei summer camp by an English teacher at Thomas More, Alan Hoffman (Tushar Mathew), who was greatly impressed by the boy's ability to identify The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from a single clue in a game of charades. We also get an inkling of Jim's longing for a heroic alternative identity as Louise, the principal's wife (Lexy Cann), listens patiently to his predictably painful teenage angst poems and concludes that he is "using poetry like a ladder to climb out of some terrible place."
Certainly the boy, whose teachers regard him as "the most interesting mess we have this year," has a penchant for dark places, developing an obsessive fascination with Nazis and a self-destructive tendency to drink alcohol, steal and beat up other boys and then lie about it rather than face the consequences. The only person to get an upfront and personal experience of bad-boy Jim is his math-geek roommate Austin Lord Schmitt (Micah Scheff), who, as the principal's nephew, is trapped in Jim's own personal war zone.
That war zone continues throughout Jim's two years at Thomas More — the philosophical debates (about Socrates, Jesus Christ, Thomas More and suicide by proxy), the continuing bouts of drinking and brawling – until shortly before graduation. That's when the walls of self-protection the adults have built around themselves come crashing down and no one, including Jim, can keep the pretense alive any longer.
English is quite simply astounding in the role of Jim Quinn. He perfectly embodies the contradictions and messy chaos of adolescence, ricocheting between melodramatic challenges to authority and a desperate fear that his own self is wholly inadequate to the goals his ego needs him to achieve.
The role of Carl Schmitt marks a welcome return to the Humboldt stage for Sommers after health issues sidelined him for a while. Clearly, he's back at full strength in this heart-wrenching portrayal of a man who has buttoned himself up so tightly that the agony when he breaks out of his self-imposed straitjacket is palpable.
Frequently seen on stage at Dell'Arte, Mathew is making his debut at Redwood Curtain and a fine debut it is, too. Usually seen in more comedic roles, Mathew excels here as the quietly anxious English teacher fighting his own visible and invisible internal battles.
Cann has been absent from our stages for too long, so it's a happy return for her in the role of Louise. She confidently treads that fine line between mentor and confidante to a troubled student, and grounded reality to her tortured husband.
Rounding out the cast is Scheff, also making his Redwood Curtain debut, as Austin. With a remarkable likeness to Daniel Radcliffe in the early Harry Potter movies, Scheff's nerdy demeanor makes him the perfect counterpoint to his mess of a roommate.
The scenic design (Robert Pickering), lighting (Percy Ferrugia), costumes (Laura Rhinehart), sound (Kai Lassen) and properties (Amy Beltran) work effectively together as a seamless backdrop for the actors and their stories, while stage manager Dominic Christenson keeps the relatively few scene changes moving smoothly. The play is fluently directed by Roman Sanchez, who directed Shanley's Doubt and has clearly developed an acute sense for interpreting the playwright and his Catholic sensibilities.
With a clever script that gets deeper the closer you listen, Prodigal Son is an intriguing production well worth 90 minutes of your time.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's Prodigal Son runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 12. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre goes full ABBA with the musical rom-com Mamma Mia!, previewing Thursday, May 2 and playing through June 2. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org. For ages 14 and up.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox leaps out of the Raold Dahl storybook and onto the stage at Humboldt State University's Gist Hall Theatre Friday, May 3 through 11. Call 826-3928 or visit www.theatre.humboldt.edu.