What's Tony Thinking

Imagine the Prodigal Son Story Turned on Its Head


It is perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). The ne’er-do-well younger brother returns after blowing his inheritance. When his dutiful older brother trudges in from another hard day in the fields, he is furious to discover that Dad has welcomed the prodigal home with open arms and a party.

In Luke, the story ends there. Grace to the prodigal; the elder brother, outside the party, fuming. You’re left wondering, will he join the party?

Sam Shepherd’s play “True West,” currently at the Seattle Rep, takes up where the parable leaves off. In the second act, the dutiful brother, Austin, (who happens to be the younger here) gets rip-roaring drunk, turning his back on his dutiful life and seems eager to embrace his older brother’s life as a drifter and petty criminal. Meanwhile, prodigal Lee has conned his way into something resembling an actual job as a screenwriter (Austin’s gig) and is now on the hot seat to produce. Lee gets to feel what it’s like to have to deliver.

That’s the second act. Each brother, at least partially, flips into the other. It is hilarious and revelatory.

After the first act, in which Lee (t-shirted, beer swilling, see above) torments his younger brother mercilessly, I was rolling my eyes. I’m thinking, I have spent way too much time with the Lee’s of this world to need to sit through this in the theater. Lee, the blowhard who has all the big plans and is a self-described expert on everything, is the kind of person who drives me nuts. Spare me. Then I got my own comeuppance.

Act Two, with its great reversal, suggested — at least to me — that within every earnest elder, there is shadowy prodigal, waiting to go off the reservation, waiting to be loved. And, just maybe, the neer-do-well has another side to him too. Jung called it our shadow. Sam Shepherd’s 1970’s classic is, in its wild way, a study in the healing that may be found in embracing our shadow — the stuff about ourselves we would rather not face or admit.

I’ve often thought that the bible’s brother and sister pairings — the prodigal and elder brother, Martha and Mary (Luke 10) — show us two parts of one whole. That within most of us there dwell both — a ne’er-do-well sinner and a self-righteous Pharisee (also a sinner), wanting to both kill and love each other.

Meanwhile, at Taproot Theater in North Seattle, there’s another revival, “Steel Magnolias.” The film came out thirty years ago. Can that be true?

On one level, Steel Magnolias is full of the light-hearted, silly banter of the beauty salon or barber shop. Six women in Louisiana, each with their own particular story and style, teasing, consoling and carrying on. But as with True-West. there’s a turn and a deepening with Act Two. A turn that is both expected and un-expected. The death of a young woman. She is the daughter of one of the other characters (mother/ daughter dynamics on display), but in another sense the darling, the beloved one, for the whole salon crew.

That young woman, Shelby, despite her compromised health, is the most alive of the bunch. With her death, at least some of her vitality passes to — or is brought out in — each of the others. And the love that dwells even in the midst of silliness and the ordinariness of a beauty salon (motto: “there is no such thing as natural beauty”), is made visible. It brought to mind the line in the song, “What a Wonderful World.”

“Saying, ‘how do you do?’ they’re really saying, ‘I love you.'”

On a day (Friday) when Trump’s spite and vindictiveness were on full display, Steel Magnolias was a helpful antidote. It continues through the end of February. True-West has about another ten days. I recommend both.



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