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The Return of the Prodigal

Roderick Hill gives a wonderful performance as the title character in the Mint Theater's production of St. John Hankin's slight but satisfying dramedy. logo
Tandy Cronyn, Roderick Hill, and Richard Kline
in The Return of the Prodigal
(© Richard Termine)
Theatergoers who routinely expect lavish period settings, heavy accents, and three-hour plays whenever they step through the doors of the Mint Theater are in for a surprise with artistic director Jonathan Bank's take on St. John Hankin's 1905 dramedy, The Return of the Prodigal.

Without specifically resetting the show's time or place -- a small English town called Chedleigh -- Bank has opted for a decidedly up-to-date set and modern dress (both nicely realized by Clint Ramos), and has the cast speak in Mid-Atlantic accents. All of this rejiggering has clearly been done in the hope of emphasizing the work's contemporary nature, and in that, Bank succeeds; the travails of the Jackson family would hardly seem out of place on Fox or ABC, where the whole shebang could run two hours with commercials.

But he's rather less successful in making a case for this never-before-seen play (in America, at least) as a lost masterwork. Instead, it's a mildly satisfying, if ultimately slight, piece that too-quickly lurches from sitcom to serious drama, while borrowing a bit too heavily from Wilde and Moliere in the process. Luckily, Bank has recruited an accomplished cast, led by the wonderful Roderick Hill, who help smooth over some of the show's weaker moments.

The story, as the title foretells, is as old as the Bible. Five years after being shipped off to Australia by his stern but loving father (Richard Kline), ne'er-do-well youngest son Eustace Jackson (Hill) mysteriously returns to the family homestead, making his arrival felt by fainting at the front door. His sudden reemergence delights his good-hearted if dim-witted mother (a delightful Tandy Cronyn) and sweet but unhappy sister Violet (Leah Curney). Only stuffed-shirt older brother Henry (Bradford Cover) seems less than thrilled to see his golden-child sibling back in the family fold.

In short order, Henry -- who is running the family's prosperous cloth mill business -- has adequate reasons to be suspicious of his brother, who has done more than borrow Henry's clothes. Among other things, he has charmed, albeit unwittingly, Henry's soon-to-be-intended, the aristocratic Stella Farrington (Margot White). But matters of the heart are even less important than matters of the wallet to Henry, and once it becomes crystal clear that Eustace -- who has already failed at any numbers of careers -- plans to live off his family's generosity permanently, the battle lines are drawn.

In the final section of the work, Hankin scores some extremely pungent points about parental expectations and responsibility. While the playwright doesn't condone Eustace's ultimately disreputable behavior, he allows the clearly unhappy young man to make some very salient points about societal hypocrisy and forces us to challenge our often unthinking attitudes towards the haves versus the have-nots.

The show's success rests on Hill's slenderish shoulders, and he proves up to the task. Having previously impressed me in projects as diverse as The Irish Curse, Butley, and even Lestat, this attractive and accomplished actor creates a fully-rounded portrayal of Eustace, never shying away from his less-than-appealing qualities while also creating a man who, appearances to the contrary, actually deserves our empathy.

Ultimately, Hill manages to wring both the laughs and the tears from Hankin's script far more effectively than any of his castmates, though Curney beautifully delivers a quasi-Chekhovian speech about her lot in life, W. Alan Nebelthau is perfectly on target as the doltish Dr. Glaisher, and Kate Levy effortlessly lands every zinger as the Lady Bracknell-like Lady Farrington. (Full disclosure, Levy and I attended college together, but I haven't seen her on or off stage in 25 years.)

With any luck, Hill will return immediately to the stage in another project, as soon as the worthy Return of the Prodigal concludes its run.

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