Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet” is a funny play about suffering that pulls no punches. The Douaihys, an American-Lebanese family entrenched in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, have little going for them. Their father’s death leaves the two brothers, Joseph and Charles, orphaned caretakers for their ailing uncle and subject to a local media storm. The cause of the father’s death, a high school prank resulting in a car accident and later medical complications, only seems to highlight the mundanity of their grief.
The surviving family members are distant relatives of the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, famous author of The Prophet. The play’s constant revolution around poetry is almost the only explanation for the strange yet comforting lack of resolution these characters uncover. Projected chapter titles from The Prophet introduce each scene: “On Reason & Passion;” “On Friendship;” “On Home.” Worldwide Gibran is one of the most-read poets, standing shoulder to shoulder with Shakespeare in book sales.
So, Joseph’s boss, Gloria, desperate to find a book that will save her career, is after him to cash in on his family’s distant relative – a hook that will sell, she thinks. Even the inheritance of poetry becomes something embattled, something that must be navigated.
We never get to the bottom of it, the meaning of all this suffering. We are left with words hanging in the air – and like any good poem, they linger.
Both brothers are gay and the apparent last of the family line. “What are the odds,” the common refrain following this news, is always delivered in a ho-hum vein, another tell to what little promise the remarkable holds in this world. Joseph Douaihy, on top of his family drama, is in poor health and the ensuing medical procedures take up a good fourth of the play, a trial that seems especially tortuous when we learn that he was once an Olympic hopeful in peak condition.
Except for a few humorous moments remarking on the insensitivity of the American medical system, this plotline was perhaps the least developed in proportion to its stage time and sometimes a little too vague for purchase.
In general, the play seems to clutch at every kind of pain: physical to emotional, from the everyday to the momentous. But the nature of that pain never becomes any characters’ obsession, at least not for long. True to life, everyday distractions are the norm.
“Sons of the Prophet” opened at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre in October of 2011, just a month after the tenth anniversary of New York’s 9/11 catastrophe. The play was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award, among others. It is little wonder that a play about enduring hardship and disaster resonates with American audiences today. More than anything I think Karam’s play is incredibly attuned to the present – a true play of its time.
TheatreSquared is nothing if not consistent. The play is adeptly directed by Tamara Fisch, a newcomer to the Arkansan theatre scene but nonetheless impressive. “Sons of the Prophet” is another strong play, offering another well-vetted, talented cast. Michael Bradley Cohen’s leading man, Joseph, is the cornerstone of the performance, a believable mast for a sinking ship. His brother, Charles, played with every subtlety and flourish by Mason Azbill, carries plenty of interest himself, despite being a character so similar to his brother on the surface. A newcomer to the T2 main season, Azbill’s performance was little lacking – a local I’d watch out for in the future. Bill Rogers’ rapturous and racist Uncle Bill is as steady as he is ornery and trouble stirring. I imagine the outrageous quality of the role is fun to perform, but the pain felt for the loss of his brother is complexly woven with the character’s own failing health. Rogers handles the role with considerable care.
With several standout moments, Kathleen M. Darcy’s Gloria often steals the laughs. Her character as a foil to Joseph’s grief has also recently stumbled in her career, with her family, and lost her spouse in another senseless manner, to suicide. She is a bright presence on stage whenever she appears, whether she is conniving a book deal or bemoaning her fate.
There could never be too many plays addressing our experience with suffering. Those rivers run too deep. But, the amount of attention given to the subject demands careful consideration on the part of the playwright and those interpreting their work. Audiences need to see their own pain in a new way for the ploy to be good theatre. Inevitably and beautifully, you will see yourself in TheatreSquared’s “Sons of the Prophet” – there you are, standing on stage feeling something, feeling nothing, living.
“Sons of the Prophet” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at both 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through March 3. For audience members under 30, tickets are only $10 and not much more for the more mature. Tickets can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org or by calling 479-443-5600.
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