George Claypool doesn't kill the fatted calf and throw a party when his prodigal son, Albert, comes back home after seven years.
In fact, in Lexington writer Walter May's play Gone Astray, George and his "good son," Charles, a lawyer, are preparing to write Albert out of the will when he makes his stumbling return. His arrival doesn't exactly derail their plans.
May's adaptation of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, in its world premiere production this weekend and next at Actors Guild of Lexington, uses the familiar story as a jumping-off point for a broader tale about sin, compassion and morality, set in the coal-mining country of Eastern Kentucky.
Yes, when Albert left his wealthy family, which made its money from road construction, he took a big wad of cash — and he blew every dime before returning home penniless. And yes, Charles resents his return, which proves disrupting to the Claypool family.
But that is where the time-honored story and May's script diverge.
The only ones happy to see Albert are his mother, Julia, and Charles' paralegal, Alison (played in a local star-making turn by Lauren Virginia Albert).
The men view Albert, who was a "bad boy" growing up, as a problem, particularly as Charles prepares to mount a political campaign.
But as the family drama gets down and dirty in Act II, we find that the play's title applies to more characters than just Albert, and life isn't made up of the black-and-white rights and wrongs to which Charles has clung.
Gone Astray taps themes we have seen from May before, notably compassion and understanding of people whose lives did not turn out the way they'd planned. His last Actors' Guild production, Broken, presented a woman fighting the demons of mental illness and substance abuse and how a man close to her dealt with that.
But Gone Astray is a more accomplished script, and it's much more entertaining. The play gets too preachy in the final scene, but it comes right after a delicious episode of family drama.
May keeps tossing bombshells in Act II that rock the Claypools' world and their pretenses, particularly Charles' and George's.
Both May, the writer, and director Eric Seale pull double duty: May plays George and Seale plays Albert. May gives himself an unsympathetic character to play for most of the drama, and Seale brings charm to the prodigal son, a character that needs the most work.
As much as we want to pull for Albert, there is no getting around the fact that he essentially says the only way he can make it in life is sponging off his parents. It's difficult to get behind that, no matter how much we like the rascal. His late-show redemption is too little, too late.
Julieanne Pogue, who excelled in last week's presentation of Kevin Lane Dearinger's one-woman show, In Regards to Mrs. Carter, lends a beautifully restrained performance as Julia. It's a delight to watch Marshall Manley's inner implosion as Charles endures a torrent of revelations.
But it is Lauren Virginia Albert, as paralegal Alison, who steals the show. In her performance, we see the good-enough-to-hire, not-good-enough-to-marry woman whom George sees and the incredible woman Julia and others embrace. It's a case of an actor reading the whole script, not just her lines, and creating the performance it calls for.
Gone Astray comes amid a spate of new plays being produced in Lexington, including Dearinger's work and debut shows coming from Balagula Theatre and New Works Inc. It's added proof that the art of playwrighting is alive and well in the Bluegrass.
IF YOU GO
What: World premiere production of Walter May's play, based on the biblical story of the prodigal son.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 23, 24; 2 p.m. Aug. 18, 25.
Where: Actors Guild of Lexington, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and seniors, $10 military. Available at 1-866-811-4111 or Actors-guild.org.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.