Review: The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre Portrays an Ambitious Young Women in 1919 Chicago

The Prodigal Daughter, now on stage at Raven Theatre, is the third and final installment in the Grand Boulevard Trilogy by playwright Joshua Allen. The commissioned work is the third to be produced by Raven, but it’s chronologically the prequel to the other plays. Set during the hot and violent Chicago summer of 1919, the play focuses on the story of Virginia Bass (Stephanie Mattos), an ambitious business woman, and her relationship with her father, John Bass (Bradford Stevens). The play is directed by Jerrell L. Henderson. 

The Prodigal Daughter is the story of Virginia’s goal of being an independent business women and making her own way in the world. This was not a common or easy path for women of that era—and it’s not always easy today. The story deserves to be told and playwright Allen does the job with relevant and realistic dialogue. But some elements of the work seem unfinished or in need of enhancement.

The play opens at the Bass family’s south side home on a warm Sunday evening. Virginia and her business partner, George Oakley (Stef Brundage) are demonstrating the new household device that is bound to change the lives of women everywhere: The vacuum cleaner, which is “better than Mr. Hoover’s.” The  machine is turned on after George’s long introduction and the noise terrifies Virginia’s teenaged sister Daisy (Sol Fuller), who screams in shock. Daisy is so disturbed that she attacks the device with a poker until the noise stops. 

The Prodigal Daughter cast, with Daisy (Sol Fuller), center, attacking the vacuum. Photo by Michael Brosiilow.

The other characters at this event are Lottie Dickerson (RJW Mays) and the Rev. Eugene Maxwell (Bryant Hayes). Dickerson’s place in the family isn’t clear until near the end of the play, when we learn she’s the sister of Virginia’s late mother. In the vacuum cleaner demo scene, it seems as if she is Mrs. Bass—and the focus of the vacuum pitch. Her role could be explained by adding information in the program’s cast list.

We do learn that Maxwell is the new pastor of his church and there’s a hint, which comes to the forefront later in the play, that he and Virginia were once romantically involved. 

The action outside the house is the terrifying background to the family story. It’s summer 1919, Chicago’s red summer, and there’s violence in the street. We hear an occasional gunshot and sometimes crowd noise, and everyone in the house reacts with great fear. Mr. Bass announces that everyone is going to stay there for the night—and gets out his rifle. The three men board up the windows and take turns standing guard over the nighttime hours. In the last half of the play, during those hours of fear, Virginia and her relatives and visitors engage in heated conversations—some long overdue because of Virginia’s absence from the home. And one—with her sometime colleague, Oakley—ends their working relationship. Institutional racism—subtle or outright—is an element in many of these scenes.

Stef Brundage and Stephanie Mattos. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Mattos plays Virginia with some steel in her spine, as she navigates her way in the fragile business relationship with George Oakley, in her affection for Eugene, and in trying to use her own small measure of success to help her father. John Bass’ business (a dry goods store) is failing—and his ability to hang on to their large beautiful home is at risk. Stevens portrays Bass, the man who raised two daughters on his own after his wife died, as strong and resilient, until the realities of life break him down. RJW Mays, a talented Chicago theater veteran, does a great job as Lottie in her short scene with Virginia.

Special kudos for the scenic design (created by Lauren M. Nichols and built by the Northlight Theatre Scene Shop). It’s a beautiful view of a grand old Chicago home, with oak woodwork and furniture and what appears to be a vintage floor model Victrola. The design works well on Raven’s wide mainstage. Lighting design is by Jared Gooding and Stefanie M. Senior is sound designer. Costumes are by Gregory Graham. Rita Vreeland is stage manager.

Joshua Allen is clearly a talented writer (with significant TV producer and show runner experience as well). Virginia’s story has the potential to be a compelling one, but The Prodigal Daughter script needs work. The Grand Boulevard Trilogy (Grand Boulevard later became Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) has the potential to be a masterpiece of Chicago life and human history, but that masterpiece stage is a work in progress. The other two plays in the trilogy are The Last Pair of Earlies (the middle period) staged by Raven Theatre in 2021, and The October Storm, set in 1966, staged by Raven in 2023. 

The Prodigal Daughter continues at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark  St., through June 22, Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $45 for performances Thursday-Sunday. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.