I knew the plot of “The Prodigal Son” before I read it. And yet John Goldberg managed to surprise me with it.
The play only contains three characters: a father, a son, and the son’s girlfriend. It begins when the teenaged son, Dan, first meets and asks out his future girlfriend, Christy. Goldberg introduces the meat of the play soon after: the unique father-son relationship that (rightly) dominates the story. I’m not sure how Goldberg does it in so few words, but it’s artful. Soon, Dan chooses to investigate Christy’s church: the LDS or Mormon church. His father, reasonable with a capital “R”, had once been a member of but left the church, and he’s extremely unhappy with Dan’s choice. Despite the tension and arguments, Dan gets baptized and eventually goes on a mission. His father refuses to have contact with Dan until about a year into the mission, but the conversation they have at that point shows that their relationship isn’t completely dead. This sense of promise lasts through the ending, which finds Dan home from his mission and eating dinner with his dad.
No, it wasn’t really the plot that surprised me (although it was refreshing to read a Mormon story without a cookie-cutter ending). What got me were Goldberg’s choices in style and how they affected the play.
First of all, it surprised me a bit that this play was formatted as such. A large portion of it was monologues directed at the audience, which made me wonder if it would’ve been effective as an essay or short story. However, then Goldberg would’ve had to find a way to have the essay or story written from two distinct points of view; I suppose avoiding that could’ve been reason enough to write “The Prodigal Son” as a play.
I loved the voices of Dan and his father—very relatable and engaging. I did feel that Dan’s voice was too old for him, though—definitely not 18-year-old material. And I would like to have seen more distinctions between their voices. I felt most of the differences between their monologues were of content instead of style.
Still, though—the play was an enjoyable read and a relevant one. I may pull a prodigal and return to it one day.