Vancouver actor and writer Shawn Macdonald toyed with the central idea in his first full-length play, Prodigal Son, for years before he’d finally written the story he wanted to tell.
“I was interested in exploring the moral dilemma of someone who wants to come out to a dying parent,” says Macdonald between rehearsals, Mar 1. “What do you do? Do you suck it up, shut up and allow that person to die in a happy way, or do you dig in and make your voice heard despite the person’s failing health?”
Prodigal Son is not simply a pissed-at-your-parents-coming-out story, it’s far deeper. Perhaps the reason it took so long for Macdonald to bring his play to the stage is that, before he could form a full vision of Prodigal Son, he needed to begin to reconcile his sexuality with a nagging sense of spirituality he’s felt since he was a child. That’s the underlying theme in his play: confrontation between, and reconciliation of, spirituality and queer sexuality.
“I was a very religious little boy,” says Macdonald. “I just happened to be in an intensely Catholic family and that’s where I was allowed to express that part of myself.”
Macdonald’s (earthly) father was studying to be a priest when his parents met. As Macdonald grew, his parents naturally sent him to a Catholic school. He studied philosophy at the very Catholic St Francis Xavier University. (His philosophical training positively oozes from the scene from Prodigal Son he showed Xtra West.)
Sometime along the way, Macdonald came to realize that Catholicism was incompatible with his sexuality, so he locked spiritual thoughts and ideas out of his consciousness altogether. He traded a sexual closet for a metaphysical one.
“I was trying to be cool and fit into the gay community,” he says. “God wasn’t trendy. I didn’t know how to name things, but I have to admit that I always had something going on that I couldn’t deny.”
Macdonald says it’s a fundamental injustice for religious institutions to relegate sex to a checklist of rights and wrongs. He also thinks it’s an injustice more queer people don’t seem more connected to their spirituality.
“I don’t think the world thinks gay people are spiritual,” he says. “I think everyone has a right to explore their spiritual sides and I hope we, as a community, keep looking for ways to do that. Sexuality is connected to spirituality.”
Macdonald says he’s inspired by one of his favourite authors, Caroline Myss. “She says some people are very good at sex and that sex is a spiritual act because you’re very in the moment. Sexual pleasure is about the full experience of that moment. I think that’s very liberating. I thought it’s a really common-sense way to look at what’s going on in you during a sexual experience.
“To me, it comes down to a discussion about what it means to be human and what our sexuality means to us,” continues Macdonald. “There isn’t really room to discuss sexuality as the expression of desire and love in most doctrinaire religions. To me, that is where we have to start talking. That’s where the dialogue needs to begin. What role does our sexual life play in our humanity?”
It seems inevitable that a play about spirituality-God, the Catholic one-and queer sexuality will be controversial. Will queer people reject the religious content while Catholics are outraged by the queer content?
Prodigal Son is a co-production of the queer-friendly Touchstone Theatre and the God-friendly Pacific Theatre. It’s directed by Touchstone Artistic Director Katrina Dunn, who says the juxtaposition of audiences from two walks of life will lead to a more interesting experience.
“We’re trying to put our audiences together,” she says. “I think the play is going to be challenging for both Christian and gay audiences. In some ways, a lot of gay people don’t want to talk about God. For very valid reasons, they close that door.”
Dunn says she finds it “so weird” that a lot of her gay friends go to church. “As a woman, I find it hard to go into a church just because women experience the same squishing down by organized religion,” she says. “I don’t go to church and I wouldn’t go to church, so I think it’s incredibly brave to sort through those contradictions and find freedom in that kind of atmosphere.”
Macdonald says he wants Prodigal Son to inspire dialogue, but that he didn’t write the play to be controversial.
“I’m still kind of surprised, and I keep having to remind myself this play has the potential to push buttons,” he says. “I’m not trying to stir the shit or piss people off. I’m trying to write a play about the importance of spirituality. It was a healing experience for me to write it.”
But controversy touched the play even before rehearsals began. One of the child actors pulled out of the project, Macdonald says, because he was pressured by the administration at his Catholic school.
“That was very eye-opening for me,” says Macdonald. “It made me realize that it is a good thing that the play’s being done because there’s still a need for it. It also reminded me it has the potential to stir things up in various communities.”
Prodigal Son is the story of Peter, a young queer man played by the hunky Craig Erickson (Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, Chemainus Theatre Festival) who travels home to confront his dying super-Catholic father, Murdoch, played by Donald Adams (Little Mercy’s First Murder, Touchstone).
Touchstone invited Xtra West to peek at one touching, but emotionally heavy scene. In it Peter reassures his bedridden, and apparently tubercular, father that he does have a deeply spiritual side to his life. Peter says he sees God everywhere and in everything but that, despite Murdoch’s expectations, he’s not interested in going to church or obeying organized religion’s oppressive rules.
Murdoch cautions Peter to re-read his St Augustine and not to get seduced into pantheism. “Otherwise it’s no better than primitive tribes thinking the sun is God and stuff like that,” he admonishes.
“I don’t accept the Catholic faith because the Catholic faith doesn’t accept me,” Peter retorts. He demands that his father accept him as the gay man he is rather than embracing only select godly parts of him, parts that don’t include his sexuality.
“You only love the part of me that looked like you, the little holy boy,” Peter shouts at Murdoch. “Choose, it’s me or the church. Choose. Say you were wrong. I need to hear you say it.”
“I really hope people think it’s interesting and come see,” says Macdonald. “I wrote from my experience. I really think there are people out there who have had similar experiences and who are looking for their place in spite of the wounds they’ve had as a result of being gay. I would be really gratified if people connected to the play on that level.”