Last weekend my wife, Stephanie, and I found ourselves sitting in the Manhattan Theater Club on West 55th Street in New York City.
Well, to watch John Patrick Shanley’s (of Tony, Academy Award, and Pulitzer Prize fame) latest Off-Broadway hit about my wife’s parents! Why else!?!
To tell you the truth, I still haven’t quite assimilated the reality of the experience. You see, it is not often that I go to New York City. (I have been there once before). It is not often that I see a Broadway show…or an Off-Broadway show…or even an Off-Off-Broadway show.
Call me a Philistine, but I will just go ahead and admit that I have never seen a show in New York. Not until last weekend that is!
You see, the fact of the matter is that aside from acting in a couple of high-school plays and starring in Arthur Sullivan’s one act play “Cox and Box” (I was Mr. Box)…aside from these minor dalliances with theater, I have never really been a big fan of Drama.
But when it became clear to me that my wife’s parents (both of whom passed away in the last several years) were going to be depicted on stage, that John and Louise Schmitt (Grandmum and Granddad!), were going to be acted out on the world’s stage… how could I refuse to drive my wife the 495 miles to New York City to watch it?
For many of you, I know, a trip to New York City is par for the course, but, for a pair of country-mice, such a trip requires a fair amount of courage and chutzpah.
It also requires a few dollars!
So there we were, getting settled in the packed theatre, trying to compose ourselves after what might be described as an exciting or even exhilarating (perhaps crushing) sensory overload- the sensory overload that is the experience of walking through Times Square on a Friday evening.
We made a futile attempt to settle ourselves into the proper frame of mind conducive for watching a play.
But how does one do this when the play is about your family? When the characters are none other than your own parents? Parents whom one has recently mourned, but here they are again resurrected and in the spot light?
Impossible! As a mere son-in-law my mind was swirling and my heart pounding. As for my wife and her brothers I am certain that the experience punctuated by the haunting original music of Paul Simon was surreal.
The play itself, Prodigal Son, was masterfully written, beautifully acted, and gut-wrenchingly cathartic.
Author John Patrick Shanley happened to have attended Thomas More School in New Hampshire; a boy’s Catholic boarding school that John and Louise Schmitt founded in the 60’s and ultimately closed after ten years. Confessedly modeled after Shanley’s own experience, the plot portrayed the role that the school played in the redemption of 17 year old “Jim Quinn” (played by Timothee Chalomet). Quinn, a way-ward son from the Bronx, having been thrown out of other schools and at the mercy of his passions and self-destructive habits, is given a chance at Thomas More.
As the play unfolds we discover that the headmaster and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Schmitt (played by Chris McGarry and Annika Boras), share a well concealed sorrow, a sorrow caused by the tragic death of their own son. This sorrow becomes the source of Quinn’s redemption. Their hearts softened by grief, and harrowed by suffering, impel them to see the good in Quinn, despite his many expellable indiscretions, and they are able to see him through to the end – drawing out his hidden talents and mercifully allowing him to graduate – thus providing him with a sense of self worth and new opportunity. Indeed Quinn is born anew.
Prodigal Son is about the mysterious role that suffering plays in life – even the seemingly senseless suffering and heartbreaking pain that comes with the death of one’s own child, one’s own son.
The play revealed a hidden chapter in the lives of John and Louise Schmitt. The events occurred when my wife was only a year old. Perhaps strangely, yet somewhat typical of many in that generation, Stephanie’s parents did not air their personal lives. They never spoke about these events to me and rarely if ever to their own children. In point of fact, John and Louise Schmitt suffered through not just one, but the tragic deaths of two of their children. Nonetheless, they did not give the impression that God had singled them out for any special suffering. As far as I ever knew (from the time I was eleven when I first met them), John and Louise Schmitt considered themselves blessed and displayed a quiet joy withal.
As we wept (discretely) in our seats, I know that Stephanie and her brothers were grateful for the gift that Shanley had given them through this play. I know that my wife and her siblings were grateful to have an answer about the mysterious workings of God’s grace in the deaths of their siblings, and in particular for the death of their little brother. Deaths whose explanations until now had been consigned to the inexplicable mysteries of God’s Divine plan.
But sometimes God reveals a glimpse of His plan…even after fifty years.