If you’re looking for a powerful and thought-provoking theatrical experience, John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son is one to consider. This autobiographical play tells the story of Jim Shanley, a bright but troubled young man who struggles to find his place in the world. At its core, it’s a play about honesty as the characters struggle to be true with each other and ultimately with themselves.
The play is set in a Catholic boarding school in the 1960s, and Jim is surrounded by a cast of complex and compelling characters. There’s his headmaster, who is both a mentor and a father figure; his English teacher, who is drawn to Jim’s intelligence and rebellious spirit; his roommate who offers a peer’s perspective to Jim’s difficulties; and another staff member – the compassionate wife of the headmaster. There is also the looming shadow cast by his unseen older brother, who is serving in Vietnam.
As Jim navigates the challenges of adolescence, he also grapples with his own identity and his relationship with God. He is a brilliant student, but he is also arrogant and defiant. He is drawn to both good and evil, and he must ultimately decide who he wants to be.
The Elgin Theatre Company’s production of Prodigal Son is a strong depiction of the thought-provoking script. Each member of the cast has their individual moments to shine, and the direction is tight and focused. The set and costumes are evocative of the 1960s.
Although Elgin Art Showcase is a small, intimate space, ETC’s Prodigal Son is performed with body mics on all the characters. It creates some sound inconsistencies but does allow the performers to be very subtle in the volume of their dramatic line delivery. This is indicative of an overall trend for theaters to rely on body mics in spaces where they hadn’t been used previously.
Complimenting the sound design of David L. Snyder, the lighting design by Katelynn Weidman is nicely done. The theatre doesn’t have the most elaborate lighting system, but Weidman uses all the tools at her disposal to great effect. Set design by John Pietrzyk is far bolder than one usually sees at this venue. The multi-level set is well done and aptly fills the needs of the show.
What really makes this mounting stand out is the acting. Barrington High School student Alexander Garcia gives a tour-de-force performance as Jim Shanley. He has a certain natural charm that is easy for the audience to connect to. Indeed, Garcia has a lot of natural talent that could really turn into something special if he embraces the dedicated study of different acting techniques.
For this production of Prodigal Son, Garcia does a great job of capturing Jim’s complexity and intelligence. Under director Jonathan Horn, Garcia creates a stirring interpretation of a young man in emotional peril, struggling to find out who he is and where he fits in the world.
Jim’s roommate and friend Austin is played by Liam Pietrzyk and Arion Peralta on different nights, with Pietrzyk performing on the night being reviewed. Pietrzyk really digs deep to find a believable character. The young man should be proud of his first non-musical role. It is a fine performance.
The headmaster Carl Schmitt is played by Steven Delaney who shows that he knows how to deliver angst. Other levels could make the performance even more well-rounded and enjoyable.
Holly Sloan and Nadine Franklin are double-cast as Louise Schmitt, the wife of the headmaster. Sloan played the role on the night of the reviewed performance, and she really shines. She is able to capture both the drama and the moments of lightheartedness of the character. It is a strong performance.
John Pietrzyk makes an excellent showing as Alan Hoffman, one of Jim’s teachers. The teacher is on the surface a good man who you would admire for how he selflessly looks out for Jim. However, the John Patrick Shanley script doesn’t have any angels in it. Every character is complex, and Mr. Hoffman has a dark side too.
Costume design is well executed by Dee Korby and Joanna Wester. It’s the kind of show that actors can often dig into their own closets to find something appropriate for their character. Props are by Clark Cheatham, publicity and social media are by Jon Kramp, Richard Grieger, and Madeline Franklin.
Grieger also serves as producer, while Larissa Catalano is assistant director and stage manager, further assisted by Alex Stokland. Fight choreography is nicely done by Frank Rose. Additional production assistance is provided by Matt Hordyke. Sign actor Andrew Ross is always a welcome addition to select performances of Elgin Theatre Company productions.
The theatrical experience of Prodigal Son stays with the audience long after leaving the venue. It is a powerful and moving play, in this case beautifully brought to life by Jonathan Horn and the wonderful talent of Elgin Theatre Company.
Although Prodigal Son closed on September 24, the play is indicative of the kind of wonderful work that ETC churns out. Next up for Elgin Theatre Company will be It’s A Wonderful Life in November under the direction Regina Belt-Daniels, winner of the 2022 Heartstrings Award for her helming of I Hate Hamlet.
For information on upcoming productions and auditions at Elgin Theatre Company visit www.Elgin-Theatre.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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