The secret lives of the affluent and powerful is a juicy and ubiquitous theme, but so often rears its head in glibly satirical scenarios that proclaim: rich people suck. Wealth and privilege are indeed under the microscope in Paolo Santalucia’s Prodigal, but he’s not interested in pointing and scoffing. Presented by The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre, his play paints a compelling portrait of familial dysfunction that is—though very funny—deeply invested in the humanity of its mostly unlikable characters.
Perhaps unlikable isn’t quite apt. No member of the Clark family is particularly vile; they have gradually alienated each other after years of neglect and strategic posturing. We see their drama play out in the vast and sterile kitchen of the posh family home. We can sense the money lurking in the pristine space—the large white panels, the polished granite floor—though Mark Hockin’s set feels distinctly cold and unwelcoming.
An opening sermon, delivered by Shauna Thompson’s Simone Côle, sets up the biblical “prodigal son” that frames the story, introducing us to ideas of forgiveness and redemption that will resonant throughout. At the top, an engagement party is in full swing. We first meet the caterers: an endearing couple—Pauline (Meghan Swaby) and her husband Quentin (Jeff Yung)—negotiating the fraught family dynamics while trying to resolve their differing attitudes towards the sly politicking required to launch their planned restaurant.
Henry (Cameron Laurie) seems the most emblematic of the Clark family facade of stability and upward momentum. His fiancé, Sadie (Veronica Hortiguela) is a self-proclaimed social media influencer with advice for everyone, who’s own therapy seems to be genuinely paying off as she reveals surprising insight and self-awareness.
In Violet Clark (Hallie Seline) we recognize poise and intelligence. She deliberately places herself in a precarious position between her estranged brother Edmund and the rest of the family. Their relationship seems, on the surface, the most solid; though gut-wrenching revelations are in store.
Nancy Palk’s Marilyn Clark is the chilly matriarch, maintaining a stoic dignity, but entirely ineffectual as a mother and wife, barely able to express emotion unless it concerns her precious boxwoods.
In full silver fox mode, Rick Roberts’ Rowan Clark is on his way to becoming Governor General if he can just manage his family dynamics and an extramarital affair.
And then there is Edmund (Dan Mousseau), the black sheep, recently cut off from the family trust, who, after a deliriously messy, drunken entrance, sets off a series of emotionally devastating altercations. Mousseau is an absolutely riveting spectacle. Edmund’s life is an act of defiance, a colourfully confrontational bit of lived performance art. He’s undeniably obnoxious, but his wit and eccentricity is thrilling. He’s a hilariously hot mess, a spiteful clown—until he isn’t.
His gayness is tepidly tolerated and doesn’t seem to be a crucial point of contention, at least it takes a back seat to his antics—the alcoholic globe-trotting and deliberate squandering of every opportunity for self-improvement. Santalucia’s insightful script and Mousseau’s nuanced performance give us clues throughout, but we eventually must face, head on, the pain at the root of his hostility and self-destruction.
Santalucia’s direction is mostly naturalistic, but there are key moments of heightened poeticism. A aesthetic highlight is a flashy sequence where Logan Raju Cracknell’s lighting suggests Edmund’s chaotic, imploding lifestyle in vibrantly clashing pink and green. One of my absolute favourite scenes, late in act two, is between Edmund and Simone’s brother, Levi (Michael Ayres). In a truly heartbreaking monologue, Edmond confides in this near-stranger, each of them cowering in their individual spotlights, connected and isolated in equal measure.
Ayres’ Levi is a quietly commanding presence. Though he is a tall and imposing figure, he conveys such fragility and our impulse is to protect him despite his stature. Levi’s plight—a lost brother, reaching for and rejecting home—echos Edmund’s. Their brief connection is a glimmer of hope for each of them, but circumstances put them at odds with each other and their respective families.
Prodigal has compelling characters, ugly and relatable family dynamics, deliciously mean barbs and devastating confessions. It is rich, masterfully executed and intensely entertaining theatre.