Stage Door Review 2023


Monday, February 27, 2023


written & directed by Paolo Santalucia

The Howland Company with Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

February 24-March 12, 2023

Preacher: “It takes a prodigal parent to have a prodigal child”

Well-known actor Paolo Santalucia has made an impressive debut with his first play Prodigal in a production by The Howland Company in association with Crow’s Theatre. It deals with the well-worn theme of the dysfunctional family, but it is filled with striking scenes and vivid characters. Santalucia has a fine ear for natural dialogue, for how people speak when under pressure and how they speak when the pressure has lessened. As both writer and director Santalucia gives the play an unstoppable forward momentum. We don’t know where the action is heading, but we assume a catastrophe is looming. As it turns out the catastrophe is quite a bit different from what we supposed.

The action is set entirely in the kitchen of the wealthy Clark family. Caterers are preparing a meal for the engagement party of Henry Clark, the young son of Rowan and Marilyn Clark to Sadie, a lifestyle blogger who aims to be an influencer on the order of Gwyneth Paltrow. The Clarks’s daughter Violet, a journalist, is present. But present in everyone’s minds through his absence is the Clarks’s older son Edmund, gay and addicted to drugs and alcohol, who left the family home five years previously and has not been heard from since.

Rowan, fed up with Edmund’s wastefulness, has cut off payments into his bank account and now Edmund has nothing. While the engagement party is in full swing, he returns, having picked up Levi, a handsome young man on the flight from Europe. As fate would have it, Levi just happens to be the brother on Simone, Rowan’s private secretary with whom Rowan is having an affair.

Once Edmund arrives and sobers up as much as is possible for him, the action becomes a complex but entertaining series of plots and counterplots, attacks and counter-attacks, as the members of the family and those associated with try to stake out their territory and determine what rules, if any, there are that can allow them to live together.

Santalucia prefaces both Act 1 and 2 with a sermon by a Preacher. In the first sermon she focusses on the differences between forgiveness and redemption and uses the parable of the shepherd and his lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) as her example. Jesus states that if a shepherd with one hundred sheep and loses one, “If it so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray”. Before Act 2 the Preacher refers to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24). Here a son squanders his inheritance, returns home and is greeted with celebration by his father. The father’s elder son who had never transgressed was angry at this to which the father says, “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found”.

If Santalucia were a lesser writer we might assume that the action following these sermons would be illustrations of them. In fact, the writer sets up the two related parables of the lost one who is found to contrast with the subsequent action and to make us ask whether the parables are unrealistic or the characters’ actions ungodly.

Santalucia has created a panoply of juicy roles and under his direction there is no weak link in the cast. The central figure is of course Edmund, the prodigal son of the title. The character, whose neuroses are made worse through drink and drugs, is a total mess as a person. Dan Mousseau does amazing work in bringing Edmund to us in all his messiness. Edmund is both over-judgemental and over-analytical so that he analyses his judgements and judges his analyses and easily ties his mind in knots.

Yet, as Mousseau demonstrates, There is an endearing quality to Edmund despite everything. There is a good person inside the shell of constant carping that he has set up as his protection. Mousseau shows that Edmund knows what he has become, knows he reacts without thinking and knows he should try to tame his worst behaviour. But what make Mousseau’s performance so special is how he conveys this conflict within Edmund between what he knows he should do and what he does. Even though Edmund is weak enough and too old now to blame all his faults on his parents, we still hope he can exit the awkward situation he is in with some dignity intact.

Edmund’s main antagonist is his father Rowan, played by Rick Roberts in one of his best-ever performances. In Rowan, Roberts gives us a wonderfully detailed study of hypocrisy in a man who claims to stand on a high moral ground but who is severely morally compromised. Roberts illustrates Rowan’s technique of taking an authoritarian stance to suppress any questions about his own activity. What makes his performance so enjoyable is that when Rowan is acting normal and in control, Roberts shows us that Rowan knows he’s acting a role. Roberts gives Rowan a haunted look beneath his veneer of calm throughout the show as if Rowan knows he can be found out.

Complicit with Rowan in providing Edmund with the least supportive background he could have is Edmund’s mother Marilyn. Nancy Palk provides a great portrait of a mother who seems not to have motherly bone in her body and only cares about this circumstance because she thinks she should care. As a character notes of Marilyn, she cares more about her plants than she does about her children. Yet, like Rick Roberts’s Rowan, Palk’s Marilyn reveals that there is an ember of parental love inside that has not entirely died out. Edmund makes himself difficult to love. Rowan and Marilyn make themselves difficult to love, yet one of the strengths of Santalucia’s writing is that, by the end, we sense that a mutual love between parents and child could have existed if both sides had bothered to nurture it.

One of the central characters is outside the family. This is Shauna Thompson as Simone, Rowan’s private secretary. In contrast to the constant fighting among the members of the Clark family, Thompson plays Simone as a steady force of love and concern. Simone may be deceiving herself that her relationship with Rowan will survive his being elevated to high office, but the quality of emotion she emanates is so strong it lights up every scene.

Thompson also plays the Preacher. If preachers in real life gave such clear, heartfelt sermons so full understanding for human frailties then churches would be filled with eager parishioners.

The other characters of Prodigal are less complex. Cameron Laurie does a fine job of making Henry, Edmund’s brother, a dim young man prone to anger who cannot see beneath the surface as Edmund can and can only bluster rather than put two ideas together.

In contrast, Veronica Hortiguela makes Henry’s fiancée Sadie one of the play’s most delectable creations. Hortiguela, perhaps channelling Annie Murphy’s Alexis on Schitt’s Creek, has the voice, phrasing and body movements down of a rich girl who has been completely free to indulge mindlessly in whatever the latest trend in physical or mental well-being is that comes along. Seeking permission for personal interactions is actually a kind of aggression masquerading as politeness. Yet, by the end Hortiguela makes clear that our initial judgement of Sadie as superficial may itself have be superficial.

Hallie Seline plays Edmund and Henry’s sister Violet as a perpetually sullen young woman whose loss of pleasure in life comes from keeping hatred of her parents bottled up for so long. Violet’s main function in the play is to act as the one member of the Clark family who is overtly supportive of Edmund and who identifies with his rejection of his parents. Violet is also the principal character who exposes Marilyn’s lack of motherliness.

Michael Ayres is very sympathetic as Levi, the man Edmund picks up on his flight from Europe to Canada. The fact that Levi is Simone’s brother is a strained coincidence the play could do without, but Santalucia wants to show that Rowan is more eager to help a stranger like Levi than to help his own son.

Santalucia has a fun idea to begin the play with chat between the married caterers Pauline and Quentin, but the scenes with the two interacting with the guests go on so long we begin to wonder if the title character is ever going to make his entrance. Santalucia uses them as an example of a solid couple based on mutual respect who thus contrast with all the other couples in the play. Meghan Swaby and Jeff Yung are excellent in the roles. Swaby in particular makes Pauline the kind of practical, secure, no-nonsense person who is unlike all the other women in play.

If there is a flaw with the play it is Santalucia’s habit of repeating a description of an event without further elucidating it. One example is the article that Violet wrote about Marilyn that so incensed her. The situation could be the subject for an entire play, but here we never know what exactly Violet wrote. Non-tabloid newspapers are not in the habit of publishing screeds by children against their parents, so we have to wonder what made Violet’s article so special that it was deemed publishable.

Another example is the crime that Levi is accused of committing. I attended the play with a small group and we could come to no agreement about what Santalucia was referring to. There’s no need for this subject to be so murky. If Santalucia is going to include Levi as a character we might as well know what exactly he is guilty of.

The most serious oversight is the reason why Edmund left home. His parents’ lack of love is not reason enough. Did they actively do something that made his life at home intolerable? What was it exactly that tipped him over from being able to stand them to not being able to do so? Edmund is asked “Why did you leave?” on numerous occasions but never gives a satisfactory answer. I assumed from this that there would finally be a reveal of what made him leave. But that never happens.

Despite these unanswered questions, Prodigal is a highly entertaining and engaging play. The play may be generally satiric, but the ending is not at all comic and has nothing to do with seeking redemption or forgiveness. In fact, the ending seems to show that enough wealth can make that enterprise unnecessary. As an actor Paolo Santalucia always generates an energy that is a pleasure to watch. Now as a playwright and director he has expanded that energy into new, exciting realms.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Dan Mousseau as Edmund; Shauna Thompson as the Preacher; Dan Mousseau as Edmund, Cameron Laurie as Henry and Rick Roberts as Rowan; Dan Mousseau as Edmund and Michael Ayres as Levi. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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