Your Joy is Your Sorrow Unmasked—Huh?:
Sons of the Prophet (2011) by Stephen Karam
Discussion Sunday is November 10th
© 2013 by Eileen Warburton
“I thank God for my sufferings, because I know that the sickness I have is for the good of my soul and His glory.”
Saint Rafca (rhymes with “Kafka”)
Those of us of a certain age will fondly recall The Prophet (1923). Romantic almost-wisdom delivered in faux-Biblical cadence, those sing-song verse-essays evoke in memory the slow beat of bongos, the click of love beads, and the sweetly pungent scent of grass. At how many weddings have you heard that you should let there be spaces in your togetherness,/And let the winds of the heavens dance between you? Remember that christening, bris, or New Age naming ceremony where the new uncle or aunt solemnly intoned: Your children are not your children . . ./ you are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth? And—go on, admit it–you sighed over the “desires” of love; to melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night/To know the pain of too much tenderness/To be wounded by your own understanding of love . . .To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving. Alas, today we live in a more ironic age—or maybe we just got old. Anyway, Khalil Gibran’s (1883-1931) ever-popular inspirational verses fall on the millennial ear as a little sappy, a little specious—even while one (speaking personally) still harbors a sneaking admiration for some of the images and observations of this revered Lebanese-American poet and talented visual artist.
Certainly, a family connection to Gibran’s Hallmark card all’s-well-with-the universe philosophy is a source of ambivalence to the Douaihy brothers, distant descendents of Khalil Gibran and American heirs to his reputation. Gibran, comforter of millions around the world, is the third highest selling poet in history, just behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. But for Joseph and Charles, the idea that pain is a wondrous miracle and adversity an ennobling thing rings with hollow laughter. For them, life is a joke gone sour—quite literally. The fatal practical joke by a high school jock—the decoy deer in the headlights–that leaves them orphaned and struggling is simply the first blow of many. Central character Joseph, not yet 30, is past his glory days as an athlete and now suffers a degenerative disease of his joints. Uncle Bill, brother of the father who died in the car accident, is crippled and rapidly aging, so moves in with them. Both brothers are gay. Joseph’s intrusive boss Gloria (endured in order to have health insurance) is trying to piece her life together after her husband’s suicide and the wreck of her editorial career by a Holocaust exploiter. Meanwhile, Vin, the perpetrator of the deadly decoy deer joke, has wormed his way into the men’s sympathies in the hope that they’ll support his efforts to have sentencing delayed so that he can finish the football season.
Neither is there dignity in this suffering: everyone exploits it. Gloria needs to turn misery into books. For the brothers, pain is part of their identity. For Vin, his mixed race and impoverished background is supposed to excuse his deed. It all just piles up and up. Shock and sadness repeat themselves so often that what you get is explosive comedy—because frequent repetition of word or circumstance is one of the essential elements of comedy. It’s so awful, you just have to laugh.
So, you can either cry about it, or you can laugh. Playwright Stephen Karam (b. 1979) chooses laughter. Himself a product of the Lebanese-American community that wallows in victimhood but supports its tight family circle, Karam is in a position to lampoon a culture that celebrates suffering. Now living in Manhattan, Karam grew up in Scranton, PA, near that biblically-named landscape in which this play unfolds. The family across the street was the Duwahis, and his own grandfather, aunt, uncle, and his father immigrated from Lebanon. He’s a gay man, although his own younger brother is not. Karam, while not writing specific autobiography, draws on what he knows well. What is, he admits, drawn from his own experience is that the family is cemented by love and acceptance. Terrible dysfunction is visited upon them by health and work and finances, but the family itself is functional because they love one another. In constructing the play, Karam tried to focus his left-field comedy on that tight family experience. “Anybody’s who’s had a tense family experience inside a small home knows what it means to have something going on in the bedroom while something’s going on in the kitchen,” he has said. “I really wanted to focus on that pressure-cooker time.”
And, it turns out that while—a couple of thousand years after Job asked why God allows such suffering—the question remains unanswerable, yet (as Gibran believed) there is some grace earned in how it is endured.
At 34, Stephen Karam is one of today’s theatrical wunderkinds. Theatre outings were gifts from his mother growing up and he became involved in local theatre in Scranton. He studied English at Brown University, where his 2005 play Girl on Girl was performed by Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep. His gift for exploring the borderland world of today’s teens was revealed in the 2006 dark comedy Speech & Debate, the play that inaugurated the new 65-seat blackbox downstairs space of Roundabout Theatre. Sons of the Prophet was commissioned by Roundabout Theatre and went on to critical acclaim and prizes: the Lucille Lortel Award for Distinguished Play, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play, and Finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the theatre.