“What are the odds?” This is the question that reverberates through “Sons of the Prophet,” the comedy-drama written by Stephen Karam and performed by University Theatre on Jan. 24, 25, and 31 and Feb. 1, 2, and 7. The question bounces back and forth between characters as the calamities pile up, from mysterious ailments to hapless love affairs.
The story follows a year in the life of Joseph Douaihy (Alex Mentzel) and his younger brother Charles (Jack Ford), as they work through the aftermath of their father’s sudden death. Under the direction of Michael Najjar, the talented nine-person cast lives out Karam’s message that suffering is not evenly distributed: No one remains unscathed, but some of us are hit much harder than others.
The play opens with a violent collision. Headlights illuminate a plastic deer in front of the stage, music blares from a car radio, then is interrupted by a screech and a crash. The driver was Joseph’s father, and the deer decoy was placed in the road by Vin (Kwadwo Assensoh), a star high school football player, as a juvenile prank prompted by his teammates; however, a week later, Douaihy dies from a heart attack.
Joseph’s uncle Bill, a staunch Maronite and a racist who attacks Vin with slurs, fulminates against the judge’s choice to suspend his sentence until the end of football season. Joseph and Charles, who are both gay and more progressive than their uncle, have a much more empathetic view of the high schooler. They point out that he grew up between foster homes and football is the gateway to his future. As the story unfolds, the Douaihys develop a relationship with Vin, even speaking on his behalf at a school board meeting, all while balancing the ever-increasing complications of their own lives.
Despite the dark subject matter, “Sons of the Prophet” is truly a comedy. Banter between the brothers and their irascible Uncle sparked regular bursts of laughter from the audience. Joseph’s boss Gloria (Taelor Warner), is comically self-absorbed and her addled mind is constantly misremembering details. After she “fell from grace” as a book publisher when her biography of a couple surviving the Holocaust was found to be completely fictional (“I wasn’t at the Holocaust,” is her defense), she attempts to reclimb the ladder by roping Joseph into a book deal.
Each of Karam’s unique characters gives us a different lense through which to view suffering. Timothy (Jude Stone), the reporter who becomes involved with Joseph while covering his family’s story, is fascinated with capturing pain. Explaining his book-in-progress, he says, “There’s so many compelling stories out there that aren’t being told, and the fact that people don’t know about them, it compounds their suffering. … I do think bearing witness to people’s pain gives light, validity.” Joseph, in the midst of his own tragic story, disagrees. “Maybe it gives you validity,” he responds. And then there’s the question of whether we ought to wear sorrow on our sleeves, as Gloria does, or tucked away, as Uncle Bill recommends.
Karam’s writing pulls back the curtain on a series of raw moments, like when, in the midst of physical intimacy, Joseph struggles to remove his jeans without exposing his knee braces to Timothy, or when the aging Uncle Bill becomes exasperated over his loss of independence and reliance on a walker. It often feels that the audience is glimpsing into real moments unfolding over a lifetime, from amusingly awkward flirting to unfiltered family fights. Despite its focus on the many facets of human suffering, “Sons of the Prophet” also showed the realities of human love and resilience, filling the auditorium with laughter.
University Theatre’s next production is “A Doll’s House,” an early feminist play that shocked its original audiences. It will open on Feb. 28.