Playwright Stephen Karem is, at age 34, one of the emerging bright stars of the American theatre scene. Educated at Brown University, his 2005 play “Girl on Girl” was performed by Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep. 2nd Story audiences will remember his masterful dark comedy “Speech & Debate”, a no-holds-barred look at the state and mores of American youth. “Sons of the Prophet” is by turns poetic and sharply witty, displaying the subtlety and depth of this maturing playwright, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The title of this play is derived from the fact that the family of our Lebanese-American protagonist Joseph Douaihy are descended from Khalil Gilbran, author of “The Prophet”, a 1923 book of inspirational verses that received a popular resurgence during the ‘New Age’ era of my youth. More to the point is the fact, related in this play, that Lebanon, Kansas is the geographical center of the continental United States and in “Sons of the Prophet” we meet many characters with a myriad of serious complaints; what’s telling here is that each perceives the problems of others chiefly from their own perspective. And as each wonders ‘how will this suffering of others affect me?’ we in the audience muse that not only are each of these folks at an important personal junction but that they are each at the center of their own personal universe.
At the absolute center of all of this is Joseph Douaihy, a once-promising athlete who now has more health problems than his insurance can cover and considerable familial responsibilities to contend with, all of which amounts to an acute emotional, physical and existential crisis. Joseph is the epicenter of the thousand shocks that flesh are heir to and he’s very well played here by Jed Hancock-Brainerd who seems, at the center of this play, to embody all the stillness and contained energy of a coiled spring.
Though there are plenty of serious problems to contend with, all is played out with considerable good and sharp humor, which suggests that answers to our personal predicaments lie not in the cards that we are dealt but in how we play them. This is precisely the sort of contemporary play that is perfect for 2nd Story’s new downstage playing space. The smaller performance area heightens the immediacy of the Douaihy family crisis and allows the audience to be up close and personal with them, breathing the same air as the actors. The fluid and driving direction of Wendy Overly underlines the tension inherent in this taut and nervy play.
Encapsulating, through a series of vignettes, a brief but vivid time in the life of Joseph, this small space serves well to carry the structure of this show. Projections are utilized, there are two performance levels, set pieces are whirled on and off, and the audience is sometimes privy to action occurring just outside the playing area. Director Overly has made this elaborate series of activities seem deceptively simple, a nimble ballet of action. The emotional content of these characters’ lives are as sharply delineated as the onstage action.
Though this marks Ms. Overly’s directorial debut at 2nd Story, she is certainly no stranger to the Rhode Island theatre scene. She directed the marvelous production of “Body Awareness” for the Wilbury Group last spring and has been seen in many productions at The Gamm Theatre, where she is a resident artist, including her bravura turn in “The Beauty Queen of Lenane.” Ms. Overly holds a MFA in acting/directing from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in theatre/dance from Kent State University. A versatile performer and thoroughly lovely woman, Wendy has 40 directing and nearly 100 acting credits. I asked her recently about her experience directing “Sons of the Prophet” and how theatre, that most ephemeral of art forms, lends itself to this tale of just how fleeting the very act of living can be.
“It seems to me”, she replied, “ that the playwright’s point is to experience the ever-changing events in our lives and to surrender to ‘what is’ with grace and understanding. Life is fleeting. It can be taken from us in an instant. Playwright Karem is saying that forgiveness, and facing the inevitable with grace, is the goal. Living with the knowledge of our mortality and managing to live a good life in spite of that is a tall order.”
“All of the characters are indeed at a crossroads,” she continues. “Each having had an event that has caught them off balance and shaken their centers. It is common for those who are experiencing grief to feel as if no one else can feel what they feel. Joseph in particular has difficulty expressing his grief, both in processing his father’s death and in mourning his thwarted career as an Olympic runner. The play follows his journey towards understanding and acceptance.”
Those are, I believe, the two key words in appreciating this play that is ultimately sweet and quietly uplifting. It is no accident that the Douaihy family often invokes Saint Rafca, who, though she suffered, simply replied that “all is well.” And rather than trying to supply easy answers for the human predicament the play instead asks “how can we learn from this?”
“Towards the end of the play,” continues Wendy Overly, “Joseph meets his old Kindergarten teacher and he asks her if one can get past something that doesn’t go away. She replies ‘I don’t know that it does go away but I’ve been around for a while and I’ve seen it shift into maybe more compassion or an awareness we wouldn’t have otherwise?’ The moment ends with Joseph accepting that he must do his exercises to feel better. I believe it is the first time in the play that he takes a deep breath. What better ending for a play exists?”
“Sons of the Prophet” Downstage at 2nd Story Theatre now through November 24. See listings for details.