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A CurtainUp Review
The Return of the Prodigal
a Comedy For Fathers
By Elyse Sommer
At first glance, the play's modern look makes one wonder if Jonathan Bank, the Mint's artistic director who's noted for lovingly restoring the luster to neglected period pieces, has gone high concept on his loyal audience. Not to worry.
True to his director's note in the program, Bank has updated the physical production in the interest of preventing a lot of period details from getting in the way of the play's thematic relevance. He has also cut some lines of dialogue that would tether the characters to their 1905 roots. However, the text remains intact. The scenery by Clint Ramos has a spare, contemporary feel without being Soho loft modern —in other words, like the play generally, it transcends its time. In the same way, the costumes (also by Clint Ramos) could be on the cover of today's Vogue, yet somehow convey an Edwardian flavor. Sound designer Jane Shaw has underscored this visual eclecticism with varied incidental music. As you get to know the characters and listen to the still effervescent dialogue (refreshingly without any attempt at Brit-speak by the American cast!), these directorial decisions make perfect sense. Simply put, theater goers couldn't wish for a more enjoyable and well staged production of this long overdue New York premiere than the one it's being given in the Mint's modest upstairs space.
The play revolves around two families: The Jacksons, at whose Gloucester estate the action unfolds and the Faringfords.
The Jacksons own a woolen factory which by virtue of shrewd management has made them extremely wealthy and enabled them to move up the social ladder (their methods raise the specter of shoddy mass produced merchandise and labor exploitation). With the senior Jackson's eldest son Henry more than competently running the business, Jackson senior now has the time to further raise the family profile by standing for Parliament.
The Jacksons' ambitions are intermingled with those of the aristocratic Faringfords, who have a distinguished pedigree but no longer command the income to live up to it. Thus an alliance between Henry Jackson and young Stella Faringford is smiled upon by both sets of parents. However, while Henry is more than willing, Stella harbors vague dreams of a more romantic life. That brings us to the character for whom the play is named and who fits Stella's romantic visions much better than Henry— Eustace Jackon, the seemingly allergic to useful work second son who was sent off to Australia with a thousand pounds (at that time a princely sum) to make his own way. But Eustace didn't do any better in Australia than in England and now literally collapses on the Jackson's front doorstep.
Eustace's arrival sends all manner of disquiet rippling through the smooth surface of the Jacksons' comfortable lives and planned family mergers. While his mother is delighted to have him back, his brother and father soon catch on to the true state of his health and intentions and try to force him to mend his ways or leave. But Eustace has his own plan. By the time we learn how and if he can bring it off, the frothy satire of the initial two acts has turned sober, raising questions about the social order.
Naturally, the best play is only as good as its players, but once again everything about this production is first rate and the performances, like the stagecraft, fit the presenting company's name. Best of all is Roderick Hill as the title character. He lets enough of the underlying frustration show through Eustace's initial screwball comedy flippancy to set the stage for the final confrontation with his father (Richard Kline managing to add just a touch of anguish to the inflexible father).
Tandy Cronyn is delightfully ditzy as the mother who's tone deaf to all unpleasantness. Her impenetrable cheerfulness also makes her blind to the fact that her daughter Violet's (Leah Curney) almost painted on smile hides her despair that the family's rising fortunes have stranded her in a no-woman's land —too high on the social ladder for her father to sanction a marriage within her old milieu but, unlike her brother, still not quite acceptable as a wife and daughter-in-law by the family's aristocratic new friends.
Of course this would be a dull play if all the women were either fluttery Mrs. Jacksons or meek Violets, so we have the marvelously outrageous Lady Faringford (Kate Levy) to whom Mr. Hankin has tossed most of the play's best quips ("It's such a comfort that all the rich people about here are Conservatives. I believe the same may be noticed in other parts of the country. It almost seems like a special Providence"). Think of Wilde's buxom Lady Bracknell as tall, slim and chic; cross her with razor-tongued old-time film stars like Eve Arden and Rosalind Russell, and you've got the picture. Today, Lady Faringford would run a corporation instead of focusing all her managerial talents on marrying off her daughter and both her daughter and Violet would find all sorts of outlets for their energies.
While the pretty Stella Faringford (Margot White) gets away from her formidable mama long enough to befriend Eustace, the likelihood of a romantic ending is slim. In fact, with St. John Hankin, don't expect a definitive ending of any kind. While the playwright certainly takes on many of the things he saw wrong in the world around him, he did not feel compelled to bring his characters' situations to a conventional and conclusive ending. But that's exactly the charm and fun of his dramas and so, rather than tell you if Eustace's plan succeeds, here's an excerpt from an essay by the playwright about his methodology, especially the endings.
"For practical purposes we find it convenient to assume that things do begin and end at some particular point and we divide our lives more or less arbitrarily into a series of episodes of which we say 'This one began here' and 'That one ended there.' That is what I do with my plays. I select an episode in the life of one of my characters or a group of characters, when something of importance to their future has to be decided, and I ring up my curtain. Having shown how it was decided and why it was so decided, I ring it down again. The episode is over, and with it the play."
Hankins admits that his method displeased enough members of his audience to have prompted some to send letters suggesting more satisfactory endings. Such letters included a suggestion that Mr. Jackson's cloth mill should have caught fire with Eustace performing miracles of heroism to extinguis them, and Lady Faringford give him the hand of her daughter as a reward.
Obviously St. John Hankin no longer has a valid mailing address. Thus, if after you see , The Prodigal Returns (as you definitely should!), any questions about what happens or should happen next had best be hashed out with your theater going companions over coffee. You might also want to read the complete essay quoted above which is reprinted in The Mint Theater Company's just published St. John Hankin Reclaimed which features the text of The Return of the Prodigal as well as the previously revived The Charity That Began at Home.
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