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The Return of the Prodigal

Written by St John Hankin

Directed by Christopher Newton

Starring Ben Carlson, Patricia Hamilton, Bernard Behrens and Blair Williams

At the Shaw Festival

Rating: ****

The prodigal returns to the Shaw Festival this season and once again it's as delightful for theatre audiences as it is unsettling for his family.

The Return of the Prodigal, a 1905 drama by the journalist and playwright St John Hankin, was last season's great find, an all-but-forgotten script that artistic director Christopher Newton unveiled to reveal a minor classic. Showered with praise, the festival is reviving the piece for a good long run in the Court House Theatre.

The action is all triggered by the return of Eustace Jackson, the ne'er-do-well son packed off to Australia with £1,000 five years before. He collapses dramatically at the door of his family's prosperous home hoping thus to raise some pity. He does, especially from his anxious mother (Patricia Hamilton) and sympathetic sister Violet (Kelli Fox).

But his disapproving father (Bernard Behrens) and resentful brother Henry (Blair Williams), partners in the family's burgeoning manufacturing concerns, can barely conceal their annoyance. Will the prodigal's return scupper Mr. Jackson's chances at a seat in Parliament or, worse yet, Henry's chances of marrying Stella (Susie Burnett), daughter of the aristocratic Lord and Lady Faringford (Christopher Blake and Brigitte Robinson)?

The social milieu -- the Jacksons are climbing -- is lovingly observed both by Hankin and by this cast in precise measures of mirth and sorrow.

Watch for Robinson's comic work on Lady Faringford's startlingly cynical speech about the lie that is social position, and for Fox's sudden slash of bitter drama as Violet reveals the plight of the unmarried daughter trapped in a provincial town.

But what's fascinating about the piece is the modernity of the central character and his dilemma: Adrift in a world in which he cannot seem to find a place for himself, Eustace is smart but without talent for work, and he discovers the best use for his brains is polite blackmail.

Surrounded by lovely work from his colleagues, Carlson reprises the sheepish charm and clear-eyed intelligence of a man both comically and painfully aware of his own limits.

Newton has compared the play to Anton Chekhov's dramas, and the comparison is apt. There is the same heart-rending balance of comedy and much darker drama suffered by characters never quite large enough to achieve the heights of tragedy. Which of us does not know a Eustace?

The Return of the Prodigal runs at the Shaw Festival's Court House Theatre until Oct. 5. For information: 1-800-511-7429 Kate Taylor's reviews from the Shaw and Stratford festivals will be available on-line this summer at

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