Seeing Prodigal Son made me want to see more of 9th Hour’s productions. This is the fourth one I’ve seen, and all have had excellent scripts, terrific direction, good and often great acting, and first-rate technical aspects (sets, costumes, lighting, music).
Prodigal Son tackles a topic that is new to 9th Hour and one that is rarely, to my knowledge, addressed on stage – that LGBTQ people of faith are often rejected by their childhood faith communities and are misunderstood within their LGBTQ community. I’ve seen plenty of plays that deal with ruptures or reconciliations between an LGBTQ person and their family, and several about closeted gay priests and ministers. But I’ve never seen a play that dealt with a gay man struggling with the effects of his conservative Catholic upbringing and the Church’s rejection of his sexuality, alongside his deep personal belief in God.
The playwright, Shawn Macdonald, wrote a semi-autobiographical play, so Prodigal Son is also a very Canadian play. The main character, Peter, grows up in a middle class Anglo family in Quebec during the time of Bourrassa and Levesque. On TV, Young Peter sees lots of Canadiens hockey and thrills to Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. When he’s in his 30s, he visits his parents during the 1995 Quebec Referendum.
The play opens with Young Peter declaiming “I make the world!”. Young Peter sees God in everything, and loves Him dearly. The director, Jonathan Harris, conjures up a beautiful evocation of a child’s wondrous view of the world, including the magic of a Catholic entrance procession and reception of the Eucharist. Young Peter composes beautiful prayers to God, which he shares with his prosaic family. But the world is too much with the family. His strict but loving father, Murdoch, hews closely to pre-Vatican Catholicism; he later tells Peter, “I’ve never seen God or felt God. I needed scripture, the sacraments, the liturgy…”. His mother Marlene is focused on household chores and what is proper. His older brother Richard is a hockey jock. His little sister Lisa is drifting through life.
When Peter grows up, he becomes a biologist, and works in Vancouver as a bureaucrat for the BC governement – a job he hates because he can’t save the world. He falls in love with Barclay. Despite Peter’s conviction that “God hates me”, his faith can’t be fully suppressed. Barclay is faintly appalled by Peter’s religious impulses (“I thought I married an atheist!”) and wants Peter to see a psychiatrist to get an anti-depressant prescription.
Harris’s direction is rock-solid, but there is one point in the play that had me holding my breath. He manages to portray Young Peter’s ecstatic spiritual experience as totally believable. I’ve never seen this done successfully on stage. Usually, a character’s transcendental experience of God comes off as craziness or self-delusion.
The ensemble cast of eight actors is very good, but I’d like to single out two cast members. Jacob Segreto, who plays Young Peter, is remarkably talented. He’s only in Grade 7, but I would go out of my way to see Segreto in any future play. Tom Charlebois, who plays Murdoch, hits all the right notes as a stern but loving patriarch for whom rules are tantamount, then as a frail old man nearing death. As is always true with Charlebois, give him a good role and he’ll excel at it.
9th Hour Theatre Company was founded in 2009 with the goal to “explore, examine, and express questions, ideas and stories relating to faith.” Sounds heavy? Sounds like it’s just for believers? It’s neither. But it does make you think, no matter where you stand on theology. And my atheist husband enjoys their plays as much as I, a Catholic, do.
Looking for thoughtful and polished theatre? Then see Prodigal Son! I’m looking forward to 9th Hour’s next production.
Prodigal Son runs November 1-12. It was at the Centrepointe Studio Theatre until November 3, and will move to the Shenkman Arts Centre November 7 to 9, closing at La Nouvelle Scene November 11 and 12. The performance starts at 7:30 pm and is approximately 135 minutes long including a 15-minute intermission. Information and tickets at 9th-hour.ca