Comedy isn’t pretty. And suffering isn’t funny. Yet in Stephen Karam’s one-act Sons of the Prophet, suffering — political, emotional and physical — takes center stage, which isn’t so surprising when the play has a patron saint, the eyeless Rafka, whose revered saintly quality was in asking for more pain and misery to befall her. But this riff on the distress and indignity of suffering is unexpectedly funny. To top it off, the surprisingly heartfelt work is likely the first Theater J production to feature a saint, and also very likely the first where a character prays the rosary.
That’s not to say that suffering — of body and spirit — isn’t a specialty of the Jewish people.
However, we don’t have a lock on the human tragedy that befalls each of us at one point or another. And that’s precisely what Karam goes at in his swift-moving treatise on the conditions of our bodies and souls. Jews? We suffer. But so do Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists and nonbelievers. Human pain and sorrow hold no prejudice. That’s evident these days with even a glimpse of the 24-hour news cycle.
Sons of the Prophet features the Douaihy family, two generations of Maronite Christians of Lebanese descent, struggling with inexplicable tragedy while also dealing with the whims of a crazy boss, an overwhelming health care system and the indeterminacy of life.
Joseph works as an assistant to what is likely the craziest boss since actor Steve Carell’s Michael headed up the Dunder Mifflin paper company in the popular TV sitcom The Office. Brigid Cleary is glorious as Gloria, the overbearing, oversharing, head of a disgraced publishing company. She’s unrelenting — flipping her hair, mischaracterizing Hamas for Hezbollah, or vice versa, sticking her nose where she has no business — in a tour de force of nosiness that Joseph, her recent hire (Chris Dinolfo), tries to deflect. For him, his Lebanese ancestry isn’t relevant or fodder for office conversation, nor are his medical appointments or his family’s health. Once an Olympic running hopeful, Joseph — handsome and harried — has been sidelined with a mysterious ailment that causes him chronic pain.
Sons of the Prophet, directed by Gregg Henry, is a bad-things-happening-to good-people story. As the misfortune mounts for Joseph, his high-school-aged brother, Charles (Thomas Strowd Hamilton), and the rest of his family, the antics increase. There’s crazy Gloria. There’s unrepentantly non-PC Uncle Bill (Michael Willis), who calls out blacks, gays and other minorities. Brother Charles is whip-smart and smart-alecky at the same time; his quick and cutting comments belie a heart of gold beneath his teenager-tough demeanor.
The prophet in Karam’s play is Kahlil Gibran, whose book of poetry, The Prophet, is filled with aphorisms and prescriptives for living an enlightened and less painful life. First published in 1923, the book with its sections on love, giving, work, joy and sorrow, pain, pleasure, beauty, and death, among others, is beloved by the Douaihy brothers and uncle. They call Gibran a distant relative and take to heart his aphorisms, which comfort Charles and Uncle Bill, especially in times of need.
Karam, too, puts in a contemporary riff on the complexity of the U.S. health care system. Joseph worries about health insurance costs, copays and pre-existing conditions, which are all made more challenging when his coverage rests at the mercy of his erratic employer. These trenchant issues, though, are less than fully fleshed out in this 105-minute, intermission-less evening. As much as Karam wants to indict the U.S. health care system for its lack of accessibility and flexibility when people need it most — during illness or undiagnosed pain —this thread of the play lacks depth and currency, particularly now that the Affordable Care Act has wrought changes to the insurance game.
Karam, too, also deals with the issue of forgiveness — following the accidental death of the Douaihy patriarch in the wake of a high school prank. Forgiveness is hard to come by when one has lost a father or brother. Gibran forces his readers to consider dichotomies of punishment and forgiveness in light of a simple high school football game, and to sit and contemplate their own discomfort. The Prophet’s shared wisdom inspires and offers a roadmap of sorts to the brothers as they deal with their grief and pain. Gibran’s text has proven nearly universally popular and long-lasting for its nondogmatic, nearly secularized approach as a guide to living a more productive and less oppositional life. In particular, younger brother Charles finds solace in passages from Gibran, particularly one his father often uttered: “All is well.”
Like previous Theater J productions, including Yellow Face, which explored prejudice of Asian Americans, Sons of the Prophet has neither a Jewish author nor a central Jewish character. But its theme of finding a reason to prevail in the face of abject pain and suffering is as Jewish as it is universal.
Gibran, Lebanon’s unofficial poet laureate, said as much: “Hearts united in pain and sorrow/will not be separated by joy and happiness/Bonds that are woven in sadness/are stronger than the ties of joy and pleasure.”
It’s a timely message at a moment when the world seems rife with inexplicable pain and strife.
Sons of the Prophet, through Dec. 20, Theater J, Washington, D.C. JCC, 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets $17-$67. Visit www.boxofficetickets.com or call (202) 777-3210.