It’s hard to describe Stephen Karam’s play, Sons of the Prophet, performing through February 15 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. “Comedy-drama” is too mild. “Dark farce” comes closer, but doesn’t capture the true looney-tunes aspect of several of the characters. I think I’ll settle for “wonderful” and let it go at that.
Letting go is, in fact, a major theme of the story, which is set in the Northeastern Pennsylvania region Mr. Karam calls home. Long-rusting and having trouble renewing itself, the region holds itself together through the power of family. So, when Joseph Douaihy’s father dies of a heart attack two weeks after an accident that resulted from a high school prank, Joseph (Alex Hoeffler) literally falls apart. He’s plagued by the sudden onset of medical problems, most particularly losing the effective use of the legs on which he won a marathon. Without his identity as an athlete, Joseph often appears lost.
Still, he has a family, and no one else shows signs of being responsible. Brother Charles (Dylan James Mulvaney) has a high schooler’s passions (geography, the Bible) and pursues them selfishly and single-mindedly. And then there’s his uncle, Bill (Navarre T. Perry), whose health is also deteriorating but whose willingness to spew forth bigotry and hatred would give Archie Bunker pause.
Joseph is resourceful, though, and he’s talked his way into a job as an assistant to Gloria (Maggie Carney), who describes herself as having been banished from the publishing industry in New York. Gloria has a considerable inheritance from her late husband,so she can afford to maintain an office and pretend to pursue book projects, including one to which Joseph is unalterably opposed: his family’s relationship with Kahlil Gibran, author of the best-selling book of advice, The Prophet.
In fact, Mr. Karam has structured Sons of the Prophet around various sections of the Gibran text and has ultimately imbued his characters with the kind of populist wisdom for which the book became famous.
The script calls for barely-controlled mayhem at times, realism at other times, and even tender and loving expression a little of the time. Scenes change quickly, and it takes a nimble cast and director to keep things sorted out.
Fortunately, Cygnet has both the cast and director that this play needs. Director Rob Lutfy sorted his way through the simultaneous love and duplicity of last spring’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, and he’s done the same here – capture the play’s spirit without letting individual performances get so over-the-top that they’re out of control. Mr. Lutfy is not only excellent with actors, but he’s got a handle on the play’s rhythms to the extent that many of the scene changes are little mini-dramas in themselves.
Mr. Lutfy is joining Cygnet as its Associate Artistic Director, beginning next July, and it appears that they’ve made an excellent choice.
Mr. Hoeffler has the tricky task of holding the play’s center together while pursuing a character arc that zigs and zags on its own. He does so admirably, including taking on a sub-plot involving a reporter (Austin Vaccaro) who may be after more than a story.
Mr. Mulvaney plays the manipulative teenager to a tee, and Mr. Perry is frighteningly real as the demanding uncle. But, watch Maggie Carney for a lesson in catching all sides of a character; her Gloria is tough and tender, crazy and very sane, and even seductive when she needs to be. In a group of fine performances, hers stands out.
The technical side of things is handled more than capably by a gaggle of Cygnet resident artists: Sean Fanning, Scenic Designer; Veronica Murphy, Costume Designer; Chris Rynne, Lighting Designer; and Matt Lescault-Wood, Sound Designer. Kudos in particular to Mr. Lescault-Wood for finely curated music choices.
Mr. Karam has a knack for bringing outsiders to life in a believable manner. In Sons of the Prophet he’s not only done that but ultimately wrung sympathy for these outsiders from his audience.