On Stage: Prodigal Sons

by Chuck Conconi

Theater J’s ‘Sons of the Prophet’ is one of the year’s best theatrical experiences in Washington. 

Theater J's 'Sons of the Prophet' continues through December 20. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Theater J’s ‘Sons of the Prophet’ continues through December 20. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

There is a wonderful absurdity in Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” at Theatre J. It looks at life’s unavoidable sufferings, while at the same time being witty and funny, and it also is one of the year’s best, Washington area theatrical experiences.

“Sons of the Prophet” opened in New York in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won other top drama awards. It is the story of a Lebanese American family living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in an area where there are actually other towns named Egypt, Lebanon and Bethlehem, or as one character observes, “parts of Pennsylvania that never made it north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

The nearly two hour, uninterrupted performance, opens with the sound of a loud car crash, a wreck that has killed the former Bethlehem Steel worker father of two young men: Joseph, 29, (Chris Dinolfo) and his younger brother, Charles (Tony Strowd Hamilton). Their father was driving home in the dark when he swerves to avoid hitting a deer, crashes into a tree and dies a week later from a heart attack.

The deer in the road was a decoy placed there as a prank by Vin (Jaysen Wright), a local high school star football player, and a local judge delays levying a criminal penalty so he can play in an important upcoming game. Small towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio are especially protective of their local high school football teams, so there is a ring of truth to Karam’s understanding of local high school sports.

Dinolfo is an engaging, embattled Joseph who has been a high school track champion and is now suffering from pains in his knees as well as other unexplainable pains. He is worried about keeping his home together and is working as an assistant to Gloria (Brigid Cleary) who has had her own failures as a book editor and is excited to learn that Joseph’s family is distantly related to the world-wide, best-selling author of “The Prophet,” Kahlil Gibran.

Cleary is wonderfully neurotic and ditzy in a role that gives her the best of Karam’s comic lines. In a lesser talented actress this role could become annoying and over acted. Gloria too is a victim of misfortune — in a husband who committed suicide and in publishing a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be fiction. It cost her position in the New York publishing world. She is in Pennsylvania looking for a way back to the big time and believes a book about Joseph’s family can be that ticket.

Joseph and his family, however, are opposed to such a book, a position emphatically emphasized by Joseph’s feisty, politically incorrect Uncle Bill (Michael Willis). Willis chews effectively on his cantankerous role as the ailing elder that Joseph will also have to care for while he tries unsuccessfully to mitigate Bill’s anger against Vin, who regrets his prank and fears a police record will destroy his chances for a scholarship, the only way he will be able to attend college.

Wright is a minor presence, but he commands sympathy as a guileless young man who realizes he cannot undo his foolish prank and accepts whatever the ramifications will be for him. Uncle Bill, however, is unforgiving. The brothers hold no animosity toward Van, and Uncle Bill finds that intolerable.

Charles, the younger brother is irreverent and sassy. Hamilton plays him with a smart, hilarious, teenage cynicism, including his indifference to Uncle Bill’s devote Maronite faith. Charles makes fun of his brother for dressing like “a lesbian.” Both brothers are gay, another misfortune for them and the family living in a small Pennsylvania town. Charles jokes how people remark with amazement about two brothers in one family being gay. There is still another distraction with Joseph developing an emotional relationship with Timothy (Sam Ludwig) a Yale graduate reporter attempting to do a story on the family and its relationship to Gibran, and believes that it will help him move on to network level.

While it seems as though there is too much going on, director Gregg Henry keeps a firm control on the action, sensitive to the pathos and dark comedy of Karam’s vision of dealing with the universality of human suffering. Luciana Stecconi’s stark set, a monochromatic pale off-white, helps keep the focuses on the sharp, well-written dialogue and is never distracting. Karam is a facile, insightful writer who posits there is no escaping misfortune. It is all in how it is endured.

“Sons of the Prophet” continues through December 20 at Theater J, 1529 16th St, NW. Tickets are $17-$67 and available at 202-518-9400 or online here.



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