Note (3/4/13): A previous version of this post misspelled the name of the actor portraying Timothy.
Many hours after I watched it, and after many additional hours of mental processing, I still have questions about Stephen Karam’s compelling new work “Sons of the Prophet.”
What should I make of the pamphlet about multiple sclerosis that Joseph Douaihy’s boss finds among his things? Are the Lebanese people characterized by misery, as the Douaihy family suggests? What does Kahlil Gibran say in his landmark work “The Prophet?” And, lastly, what justice is owed for a high school prank gone horribly wrong, especially if we know the perpetrator meant no harm and has confessed to his actions?
I don’t have firm answers for any of these questions, of course. But if theater (or books, or movies or other artistic media) is meant to make us think, credit Karam’s new work for a memorable, compelling influx of ideas.
“Sons of the Prophet” tackles much but solves little with any real resolution. We’re left with assumptions, processed courtesy of tidbits offered during the briskly paced show. We assume the show’s anchor, Joseph Douaihy (played expertly by Michael Bradley Cohen), ends the relationship he forged one dangerously cataclysmic night with a reporter named Timothy (played by Matthew Klingler). They fight, but resolution is never shown. We assume that tests continue to determine the former marathon winner Joseph’s mysterious health ailments, but we don’t see the end results there either. And it’s also easy to assume star football player Vin gets his second chance on the field, but we see the school board meeting discussing his fate, not a gridiron.
But what Karam’s award-winning script does is teach us about the unexpected ways we all connect to each other. Joseph, while working to regain his strength, meets his kindergarten teacher, who is attempting to rehabilitate herself after an injury.
Likewise, he meets a romantic interest in Timothy who, as a reporter trying to collect information on his family, is in a position to hurt Joseph more than all but a few could.
And Joseph is already hurt — if not physically, at least deeply so on an emotional level. While wading through a sea of medical red tape, he deals with being gay in a small town, with a cantankerous, aging uncle and with the catalyst that brings all the characters together — the death of his father.
Cohen’s interpretation of Joseph is one of contrasts, and rightly so. Joseph fights for himself fiercely in one scene, then spirals into a fit of tears only a few moments later. We see his strengths (a spinal tap, administered with only minor wincing) and vulnerabilities (a flight away from the family that supports him). Cohen’s deft movements through conflicts both internal and external benefit from heavy doses of believability, and he anchors all the pivotal scenes in a way that begs empathy or, at the bare minimum, an inability to move your eyes elsewhere. We feel him making a connection to Timothy, we feel his pain at the unknown ailment (which may be worse than having a serious illness if it comes with a clear treatment plan) and we feel his connection to his younger brother, Charles (played by Mason Azbill), the sanest, most well-adjusted of these characters.
It’s all based around the most serious of stuff — failed relationships, death and disease — but it’s simultaneously very funny in parts. Uncle Bill Douaihy (played by Bill Rogers) and his bathroom breaks cause a scene, as do some of the more strained, drug- or alcohol-amplified pronouncements of Gloria (Kathleen M. Darcy), the down-on-her-luck book publisher who hires Joseph.
Some of the laughs come in self defense, and the play is far more dramatic, sexy and provocative than it is funny. Presenting company TheatreSquared suggests only those 17 years of age and above attend, and I would agree with them on that account.
The play never moves into uncomfortable territory, however, and TheatreSquared must be praised for snagging such a contemporary work, especially one with such an impressive collection of credentials (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Outer Critics Circle Award, etc…). TheatreSquared secured the first-ever regional showing of “Sons of the Prophet,” meaning that our audiences are the first outside of New York City or Boston (where it enjoyed a two month preview before moving Off Broadway) to see the show.
Through a blend of national and local talent, T2’s production screams of professionalism, and director Tamara Fisch’s touch yields a fast-paced but seamless show that barely allows a viewer a moment to catch their breath.
And, if you process things anything like I do, you’ll need more than a few moments to think it through.
Note: The production continues through March 3 at Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville. For details or tickets, call presenter TheatreSquared at 445-6333.