Some plays have an unfortunate tendency to package life a little too neatly: set-up, conflict, tidy resolution. No one can accuse Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama and the kickoff to the fifth season at Forward Theater Company (through Nov. 24), of such a sin.
While the play is a bit diffuse at times, weaving together many different threads, that's partly the point. Life doesn't hand us hardships one at a time. Through a small Lebanese American family in Pennsylvania, Prophet examines how we make sense of pain, both physical and emotional. It offers us not the comfort of pat answers, but a glimpse of what it looks like to experience suffering and move through life anyway.
Prophet centers on Joseph Douaihy, who is nearing 30 and working for a pushy, tactless boss in the publishing industry. Outwardly, he looks healthy, but he's not. What he waves off as a torn meniscus to evade questions may actually be a sign of something much worse. His boss pressures him to write a memoir incorporating his family's distant kinship to Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet. Joseph is reluctant; he's a private guy, and there's no real story to tell. But his shady boss suggests that his job hangs in the balance, and he desperately needs the health insurance it provides.
As if that isn't enough, Joseph's father has been in a serious accident, and his uncle Bill is in declining health. Together, he and younger brother Charles must take on Bill's care and also face the aftermath of the accident, which was caused unintentionally by a high school prankster.
What I appreciate most about Prophet is the way it acknowledges that we deal with the big stuff of life -- death, frailty, sexuality, faith (or the rejection of it) -- in the context of the little stuff. Our lives play out not on grand stages but in the mundane spaces of life: bus stations, offices, living rooms. And suffering a big blow, like the death of a parent, doesn't make you stoically immune to petty annoyances like maddening voicemail trees. (In one funny scene, Joseph lets loose a choice expletive after dealing with one of those inane "I heard you say 'pharmacy.' Is that correct?" phone menus.) The big things in life rub shoulders with the quotidian, just as humor and pain do, and director Jennifer Uphoff Gray emphasizes both facets of the play.
Marcus Truschinski, known to local theatergoers as a member of American Players Theatre's core company, is a likable and sympathetic Joseph. Still in his twenties, he's being forced to assume more responsibility than he bargained for, between his declining uncle and his brother. The standout of the cast for me, however, is Michael Herold as Uncle Bill. Bill's a crusty man of contradictions, devout in his faith but also the most reluctant to forgive the teen who caused his brother's death. Herold has transformed himself into a much older man, and his anguish is convincing. In contrast, I found Jake Penner as Charles to seem emotionally disconnected from his circumstances at times.
Overall, though, Prophet is engaging with its somewhat unconventional plotting and its perceptiveness about contemporary life. As an old writing teacher of mine once said, "Don't go looking for suffering. It'll find you eventually." He was right, but the ultimately hopeful tone of Prophet suggests there's a way forward.