Next up in our 2015-2016 line up is:
Sons of the Prophet
By Stephen Karam
After Joseph Douaihy’s father dies in the wake of a freak traffic accident involving a plastic deer decoy, he’s pretty sure lightning won’t strike twice. But it does, again and again, as Joseph’s health, sanity and family are called into question. Add in fending off his off-kilter boss, who wants him to write a book about his family’s tenuous connection to Khalil Gibran, and Joseph’s to-do list is looking pretty long. But he’ll get to everything – just as soon as he can get someone from his insurance company on the phone. A 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist dark comedy that laughs in the face of human suffering.
Sons of the Prophet, by Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate, Columbinus) was first produced at the Roundabout Theatre Company in October 2011. I didn’t actually read it until this past year when Erin Neel, our Director of Patron Services (who also happens to have a background in dramaturgy) put it on my desk. It played to raves in New York—famously particular Charles Isherwood wrote “[an] absolutely wonderful new comedy-drama… Mr. Karam understands that for those in crisis, the brute, sometimes humiliating reality of debility and disease is a greater preoccupation than philosophizing about it. And with unerring sensitivity he finds the sweet spot at which laughing at the horrors of life and feeling compassion for those who must endure them intersect.” Since the combination of humor and tragedy–“laughter through tears”–is practically a cultural imperative, the tone of the play felt very right for Theater J.
Important to know—Joseph’s family (we meet his younger brother Charles and his uncle Bill) are Lebanese-Americans (Joseph and Charles are born in the US)—Maronite Christians to be exact. The play continues Theater J’s examination of identity as seen through the lens of other immigrant groups (a la our production of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang) and reveals interesting parallels with our own stories of Jewish identity. Both brothers happen to be gay and neither are particularly observant. And what of their supposed familial connection to the writer Kahlil Gibran? That history is important to old-school Uncle Bill, but it’s baggage for the boys. This tension between being simply “American” and maintaining a sense of otherness strikes a resonant chord.
The play also touches on health care in this country, depicting a reality pre–Affordable Care Act—but one that is none the less relevant as our nation continues to wrestle with this issue.
It’s a play about identity, small town America, chronic pain, publishing, aging, geography, football, loss, reinvention, and family–a varied assortment of themes for one play–but they are so tightly and elegantly woven together in this story that it never threatens to overwhelm. And Stephen does one better by making the play wonderfully funny. I don’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so much just reading a play.
For me personally—I was first struck by the location of the play. Scenes take place in several towns in the Lehigh Valley Region of Eastern Pennsylvania—Nazareth. Bethlehem, and Easton. Besides the irony of the Middle-East inspired names (which is remarked upon in the play) this brought back vivid memories of road-trips from Upstate NY where I grew up, to Phillipsburg, NJ where extended family lived. Phillipsburg is just across the state line from Easton (literally, a six minute drive) and I remember that there was a huge high school football rivalry between the two towns—I think we even watched a game one year. Football, and this region’s obsession with the sport, figures into the storyline of the play and presents a very American backdrop to the bigger, more global, questions that are addressed.