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SONS OF THE PROPHETS, thought provoking, funny, but flawed at Dobama

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

When it opened in New York last year, SONS OF THE PROPHET was called “the first important new play of the fall season”

As you watch Dobama’s production of Stephen Karam’s play, you may find yourself laughing, laughing at people in physical and psychological torture, and ask, “How can I be laughing at this?”

In contrast to what many think, the opposite of laughing is not crying.  The opposite of those closely related strong emotions is no emotion at all. Knowing this, Karam, a master at word usage and idea development, has crafted a character-centered piece that has pockets of humor, but never crosses the line into ridiculousness.  This is both the strength of the play and the weakness of the Dobama production.

We watch in horror as one calamity after another befalls a hapless group of good-willed, ill-fated characters.  No one is spared.  And, whether its God’s will, the fates, or an indifferent universe, these people wallow in misfortune and pain.

The plot of the play, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, centers on the Douaihys, an American Lebanese family living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  Brothers Joseph (29) and Charles (18), whose mother died when they were young, have been orphaned when their father dies, possibly because of a prank by Vin, a local football star.  Vin, in an initiation ritual, placed a plastic deer in the middle of a highway.  Mr. Douaihy, on the way home from work, swerved to avoid the deer and crashed his vehicle.  Taken to a hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Whether the death was the result of the accident is not medically clear, but the grief that results is vivid.

Joseph, a former Olympic level runner, is suffering from a series of illnesses, the cause of which medical tests can’t discover.  Is it MS, some other physical disease, or psychologically motivated?

In order to get insurance coverage, Joseph goes to work for Gloria, a book-packager, who has deep psychological problems.  Knowing that the Douaihys are distant relatives of the world’s third beat selling author, Kahilil Gibran, who wrote THE PROPHET, Gloria becomes obsessed about Joseph writing a tell-all family story.

Obstinate, prejudiced, aging and ill, Uncle Bill, now the family patriarch, who is dependent on the boys for physical care, is opposed to revealing any family tales.

To add to the family dysfunction is the fact that the brothers are gay.

Based on self-pity, pain, and loneliness, Joseph has a sexual affair with Timothy, a gay reporter sent to write a story of the accident, with traumatic results.

Dobama’s production works on many levels, stumbles on others.

In an interesting staging device, the play uses floor projections, inspired by the chapter headings in Gibran’s THE PROPHET, to identify the sections of the script.

Chris Richards gives an excellent textured performance as the conflicted Joseph, who acts as the eye of the hurricane.  His emotions are raw, his thoughts and feelings clearly displayed.  Christopher Sanders, a Chris Coffer (TV’s FAME) look-alike, is spot-on as the mildly flamboyant Charles who is filled with teenage and personal angst.

Bernard Canepari is believable as the frustrated Uncle Bill.  Aaron Mucciolo stays close to the surface as Timothy.  Anne McEvoy travels the path between overacting and portraying the often hysterical Gloria with fidelity.  She never becomes a caricature, a danger with this type of role.  She is properly pitiful, while evoking the right amount of empathy.

Jonathan Jackson is not believable as Vin.  Laura Starnik and Jeanne Task, in spite of some outlandish wigs, and a confusing cross-dressing scene, effectively do as directed.

Director Scott Miller has paced the play well, and has helped most of the actors develop meaningful characters.  Unfortunately, the play stumbles in two important scenes.

In one segment, Van and the Douaihy family are appearing before the school board which is to determine whether the boy will be removed from the football team for his prank.  Rather than playing the scene as a message developing experience, Miller opts for a farcical interpretation.  The school board members are played as gossiping fools, Van reads his prepared message in a laugh provoking manner, and the acting goes over the reality line into farce.  The play is a drama with comic overtones, and this important message developing scene should definitely not be farcical!

The play’s last scene finds Joseph in a physical therapy center, interacting with Mrs. McAndrew, a favorite elementary school teacher.  The emotional bond between the two is obvious.  Unfortunately, the scene ends in midair…not with the required dénouement.   On opening night the audience was so unaware that the play was over they sat in silence waiting for the next scene and were visibly  surprised to see that the curtain call was enfolding.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   SONS OF THE PHOPHET is a brilliant script which gets an acceptable production at Dobama.  It’s a shame because the quality of the material is superb, and the cast, with more focused guidance, was capable of living up to the positive hype a production of this script deserves.

SONS OF THE PROPHET runs through March 17, 2013  at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.