by Shawn Macdonald
Touchstone Theatre and
1420 W. 12th Av.
March 15-April 9
Prodigal Son is actor Shawn Macdonald’s autobiographically based play about a man struggling to reconcile his sexuality, his family and his faith. Clumsy and overwritten in places, it’s still a compelling examination of a complex human situation. And if Macdonald prays, he should thank the Lord for the stellar cast and fine Touchstone-Pacific Theatre co-production with which he’s been blessed.
The play traces the life of Peter (Craig Erickson), a thirty-something gay man in crisis. His good-time boyfriend Barclay (Bob Frazer) sends him to a therapist (Gina Chiarelli) because Peter has become unhinged. Their relationship is falling apart. Peter walks around like a zombie, having mystical, ecstatic flashbacks to his youth when he used to write prayers and see God in trees.
Raised in a conservative, Catholic, anglophone Montreal home, young Peter (Alex Pimm) is more interested in poetry and gymnastics than the manly pursuits that earn his hockey-playing bully of an older brother (Michael Gunion) the respect and affection of their father (Donald Adams). While Mom (Christine Willes) tears her hair out trying to cope with the kids, her overbearing husband, and fears of the Parti Quebecois, little sister (Camille Beaudoin) quietly takes in all the family dysfunction that eventually leaves her an emotionally crippled adult.
Passionately religious Peter, meanwhile, wrestles with the realization that his emerging sexual identity makes him aberrant in the eyes of his family and God. So he gives up on them both—so he thinks. Adult Peter struggles to be whole, to reconnect with his family and faith and maintain his integrity as a gay man. He finally gets his chance when he comes out to his dying father.
Director Katrina Dunn successfully steers her terrific cast through most of the melodramatic danger zones in this play with so many heavy issues and such cliché potential. The early family scenes are among the toughest, combining banal kitchen-dinner realism with parents drawn as almost monstrous caricatures. What saves these scenes is the understated honesty of the three young actors playing Peter and his siblings. Adams and Willes get their chance to shine later as the dying father and the mother at the end of her rope.
As adult Peter, Erickson has to zone out on rocks and trees where he sees glimpses of God. Despite the weirdness, he keeps Peter human and empathetic, helped immensely by Bob Frazer’s funny, spinny Barclay, who proves to be a man of substance, and Chiarelli’s neo-hippie therapist, who has as many issues of her own as Peter does. Frazer and Chiarelli also double as Peter’s adult siblings in equally strong performances.
Paul Moniz de Sá’s spooky sound design effectively underlines Peter’s intense spiritual moments, though at the end it’s laid on, like much else in this intelligent show, just a little too thick.