Suffering takes center stage

Friday, February 15, 2013
Art Musings

A deer in headlights opens playwright Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” a theatrical treatise on the nature and nuance of suffering that’s being performed through March 2 at Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe. It’s skillfully directed by Ron May, founder and artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre, which presented Karam’s “columbinus” and “Speech and Debate” during seasons past.

“Sons of the Prophet,” a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in drama, imagines the life of a man gripped by chronic pain. He’s got a boss with boundary issues, a father felled by football, a brother addicted to geography, a love interest with mixed motives and an uncle bent on trumping everyone else in the suffering department.

The play was originally commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company in NYC and produced in association with Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. It’s set in Eastern Pennsylvania, where a Lebanese-American family distantly related to “The Prophet” author Kahlil Gibran has strong ties to Bethlehem Steel and Maronite Catholicism’s patron saint of suffering.

“Sons of the Prophet” features Ian Christiansen as Joseph, the man obsessed with rooting out the cause of his pain. Shari Watts is his needy, narcissistic boss Gloria — a transplant from Manhattan whose coping mechanisms include emptying bottles and talking into a dead cell phone. Each delivers a captivating performance.

Maxx Carlisle-King, a junior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, is younger brother Charles. He’s got a thing for hurling one word insults when feeling frustrated. Bossy. Anxious. Snapper. And more. Both brothers are gay, as is the reporter Timothy (Chase Fulton) who tries to sniff out a story after deer decoy meets daddy in the middle of the road.

Walt Pedano is Bill, the uncle whose hip gives him grief commensurate to what he dishes out to others. Michael Thompson is high school football player Vin. Susan “Suze” St. John and Shelly R. Trujillo play multiple characters — including a pair of board members who perfectly capture the stereotypical small town vibe.

Scenic design by Eric Beeck (also the show’s technical director) seamlessly shifts between office, home, hospital and other settings. Costume design is by Danny Chihuahua, lighting design by Ellen Bone and sound design by Joey Trahan. Watch each character’s hands carefully to fully appreciate property design by Brooke Unverferth that brilliantly conveys what they value most.

“Sons of the Prophet” employs a device mirroring Gibran’s chapter headings for “The Prophet” — projecting various themes onto a screen as the play unfolds. On Pain. On Talking. On Home. On Friendship. On Reason & Passion. And more. It’s an exploration of suffering near and far, small and tall, silent and shouted. Think suffering by self and others.

In the hands of another writer, its subject matter would feel sermonesque. Racism. Technology. Immigration. Sexuality. Insurance. Dependence. Religion. Substance Abuse. Guilt. Aging. Forgiveness. It’s all there, but served up in small, lightly prepared portions that whet the appetite rather than poison the palate.

Suffering never felt so sublime.