It might be argued that the world needs another coming-of-age story set in a New England boys prep school like it needs another country song about angels, but this is the first time this particular one, the brand-new Prodigal Son, has been performed in the Midwest. At least as far as director Loretta Grimes knows–she and husband Tim saw it off-Broadway last year, directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley himself.
Tim and Loretta Grimes’ Redbud Productions is their twenty-year-old love letter to the Meisner technique, an intense, immersive acting method they teach. Their productions take place a few times a year at the Kerrytown Concert House, and are about human drama, not stagecraft or special effects; Prodigal has a script that gives all actors meaty parts.
Shanley is probably best known for Doubt (he also wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck, possibly one of the best rom coms ever, and definitely one of the best of the 1980s). This is the story of his life, from 1965 to 1968, and he clung so tightly to the truth that you can Google your way to the people and places depicted–though he doesn’t use real names, he comes pretty close. Loretta told me the cast members, in researching their roles, were able to find their real-life counterparts quite easily.
The Grimeses kindly let me see a rehearsal in their basement so I could meet the Observer deadline. The period details that snap Prodigal Son directly and indelibly into the mid-Sixties–a square-edged knitted tie, a stolen bottle of apricot brandy, the constant invoking of Teilhard de Chardin as an intellectual powerhouse–are so sharp and present in almost every scene that as I write this twenty-four hours later, I still find these bits of the Sixties tragic and evocative.
One thing about boys prep school plots: you know things are going to get dark, but how, to whom, and why? It takes a long time for the central conflict of this play to emerge. Meanwhile you probably can’t help–I couldn’t–flipping through a mental Rolodex of scary prep school stories and their dreadful plot options and wondering which of them it’s going to be (A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, Dead Poets Society, the real life Horace Mann, insanity, suicide, pedophilia, something more subtle?). By the end, four out of the five characters are involved in life-defining drama, and the fifth is closely related to it.
The Concert House’s intimate, bare-bones setting, where you can see each breath an actor takes, is made for this kind of play. The interaction between the manic and uncontrollable intelligence of the future playwright (here named Jim Quinn and played by Liam Weeks); the leaden, rigid gravity of the headmaster (Tim Grimes); and the inscrutable calmness of a teacher (Nate Brassfield) make for edge-of-the-seat theater.
Prodigal Son runs June 1-3 at the Kerrytown Concert House.