Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Sons of the Prophet, Stephen Karam's 2011 play that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Joe tries his very best to understand why his life seems like one ordeal after another, and whether there is any way to stem his descent. Gloria, desperate for a sure-fire best seller to publish, discovers that Joe is of Lebanese descent, though he was born and grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the play's setting. Not only that, but Gloria received a tip that Joe is relatedalbeit quite distantlyto Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese inspirational writer whose best known work "The Prophet" has been a source of spiritual guidance and solace to generations of readers. Gloria wants Joe to write a family memoir, addressing their link to the beloved Gibran. Never mind that Joe knows nothing about Gibran and would be making things up: "The best memoirs are made up," states Gloria with a wave of her hand.
It turns out that Vin, the student who placed the false deer that caused Joe's father's accident (and perhaps his death) is a star on the high school football team, and the public is divided over whether he should be barred from play for his behavior, likely to cost the team a championship. The fact that Vin is African-American and that his best chance of future success rests on a college football scholarship, adds to the debate. Amidst media coverage that Joe tries his best to avoid, he encounters a reporter named Timothy. Though Joe is adamant about maintaining his family's privacy, a spark of attraction between him and Timothy is evident. Uncle Bill is deteriorating before their eyes, holding on to his Maronite Catholic faith, but Joe derides the possibility of faith in a life where all he sees is random misfortune.
A Lot is going on in Sons of the Prophet and if it is hard at times for the audience to keep track of it all, just imagine how overwhelmed poor Joe feels. Repeatedly, in response to his troubles, others utter a disbelieving "what are the odds?" What are the odds both brothers are gay? What are the odds he would suffer torn ligaments and then other unrelated ailments at such a young age? What are the odds his brother would be born with one ear? Joe asks himself the same question, which does nothing but add to his growing despair. Only at the play's end, in a coda that feels at first like an afterthought, does a chance encounter give Joe a glimmer of hope that as often as we are victims of random troubles, we can be recipients of random kindness. If an afterthought, it is an essential one.
Jef Hall-Flavin's fluid direction keeps these panoply of woes and confrontations from becoming disjointed or episodic, especially in scenes that shift back and forth between actors in different spaces. The inventive set designed by Joseph Stanley has panels open and close at different heights to reveal spaces where various aspects of Joe's trials can play out, greatly aided by Michael P. Kittel's lighting that draws focus to changes both in location and intensity.
Sasha Andreev is wonderful as Joseph, giving the character sharp wit and a sense of humor, even as he struggles against all helplessness in the face of loss. His arguments with the recorded menu of options given when trying to reach his doctor are pitch perfect, as is the hopefulness in his voice when he begins to feel a connection with Timothy over episodes of "Little House on the Prairie." It is one thing for an actor to express despair. It is another for an actor to let us see despair even as he makes every effort to hide it from the world, as Andreev does. Even as his character is adrift, Andreev's performance anchors the play.
Angela Timberman plays Gloria with her well-established flair for deeply wounded comic characters. She provides many of the laugh lines, but also creates a vivid portrait of emotional chaos. Michael Tezla is touching as Uncle Bill, clinging to his old world beliefs and refusing to cede any of the respect to which he feels entitled. As he confronts Vin and repeatedly, insistently tells Vin "Look at me!" he reveals the fears of one losing his grip on life. Maxwell Collyard is terrific as Charles, an openly gay high school student free of self-consciousness, but without a road map for moving forward with his life. Dave Gangler is effective as the reporter looking for a scoop, and Ricardo Beaird is convincing as the football player who struggles to express his genuine remorse. In several small roles, Patty Matthews and Sally Ann Wright both do fine work, the latter especially affecting as Joe's former kindergarten teacher.
In spite of serious subject matter and characters who have good reasons to be depressed, Sons of the Prophet is also very funny, with humor culled from the situations at hand that reflects playwright Karam's wit. The play is also tenderhearted, with affection and understanding for each of the main characters, despite their flaws. We are drawn to want good for these people, who may not be sons of the prophet in any literal sense, but who are the progeny of the expression of hope and belief in positive life ahead. The words of Gibran are raised up several times: "You are far greater than you know, and all is well."
Sons of the Prophet is having its Minnesota premiere in this excellent production mounted by Park Square Theatre on their Proscenium Stage. It is a sharply written play, with a central character being drawn downstream by currents beyond his control, grasping for a hanging branch to hold on to. Everything we see is in the realm of the possible, the fact is that no law of man or nature prohibits bad things from piling up upon some of us. Karam's play demonstrates with wit, tenderness and empathy the hardships that are the cost of being human.
Sons of the Prophet continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through June 5, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). A $2.00 facility fee will be added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Stephen Karam; Director: Jef Hall-Flavin; Scenic Design: Joseph Stanley ; Costume Design: Clare Brauch; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: Jennifer Johnson; Costume Design Assistant: Gene Nelson; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Joseph Douaihy), Ricardo Beaird (Vin), Maxwell Collyard (Charles Douaihy), Dave Gangler (Timothy), Patty Matthews (Dr. Manor, ensemble), Michael Tezla (Uncle Bill), Angela Timberman (Gloria), Sally Ann Wright (Mrs. McAndrews, ensemble).