Credit: Handout photo by Teresa Wood

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The Douaihy family, around which Stephen Karam’s dark comedy Sons of the Prophet revolves, is in the midst of a long streak of bad luck: They’re “like the Kennedys, without the sex appeal,” as one character observes. The line is just one of many to garner laughs—especially surprising for a play that’s so explicitly about human suffering. Yet Theater J’s production of Karam’s script earns each of those laughs and more, in large part because of the efforts of director Gregg Henry and his excellent cast and crew.

Joseph (Chris Dinolfo), a former marathoner whose career has been cut short by a mysterious ailment, is—ironically—the Douaihy facing the least amount of physical impairment. His younger brother, Charles (Tony Strowd Hamilton), was born with one ear; an uncle, Bill (Michael Willis), uses a wheelchair due to a respiratory condition. And that’s not even mentioning Joseph’s mother, dead for years, and father, dead after the first scene. As the play progresses, Joseph’s physical maladies intensify in concert with his personal issues and troubled relationships: High school football star Vin (Jaysen Wright) seeks the family’s absolution for Vin’s role in the Douaihy father’s accidental death (so that he can play in the big game with a clear conscience). Reporter Timothy (Sam Ludwig) coincidentally develops a connection with Joseph as he covers the tragedy for the local news. Gloria (a fantastic Brigid Cleary), Joseph’s publisher boss, seeks to mine the Douaihys’ family history for a book, while consistently over-sharing about her depression and her husband’s suicide.

At almost two hours with no intermission, Prophet covers a lot of ground. It’s a meditation on suffering, first and foremost, but it’s also about fate, chance, forgiveness, guilt, homosexuality, health insurance, selling out, the unique struggles of first-generation immigrants, the entitlement of young globetrotting hipsters, and the annoying trend of people writing memoirs before they turn 30. (It also features “chapter headings” taken from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, from which the play draws its title and yet more thematic material.) The play’s early scenes are devastatingly effective, as Karam skillfully reveals his characters to us both by what they say and what they try so desperately to avoid saying. But toward the end, it feels like Karam is less a playwright and more a plate spinner, frantically trying to maintain the emotional resonance of each plot thread.

However, Henry’s ability to accommodate all of those threads (even if they don’t completely coalesce in the end) is the production’s major triumph. (Both the lighting and set design, by Kyle Grant and Luciana Stecconi, respectively, deserve a great deal of credit for deftly focusing audience attention.) The cast members handle their difficult roles with aplomb, capturing the characters’ deep emotional trauma while easily throwing around Karam’s clever banter. In particular, Dinolfo evokes just the right blend of exasperation and sorrow as Joseph mourns the loss of both his father and his running career, while weathering the insanity around him. But Cleary steals the show, imbuing her flashy part with perfect comic timing and genuine pathos. When all the characters gather for the climactic scene, set at a public school meeting to determine Vin’s football future, the excitement is tangible.

Still another subject of interest to Karam is Saint Rafka, a nun from the Douaihys’ native Lebanon, who, as one character explains, “asked for suffering to be closer to God.” God obliged. At times, it feels like Karam is treating his characters in the same way that God treated Rafka, and the tone takes on an unnecessary heaviness. Indeed, in the wrong hands one could imagine a misbegotten, clunky production of Sons of the Prophet that would make Saint Rafka’s suffering feel like a walk in the park. But in Henry’s hands, to paraphrase Gibran’s original Prophet, its joy is its sorrow unmasked.

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