Sons of the Prophet (American Theater Company): A playwright with a lot on his mind

Reviewed by Tom Lawler

Making its Chicago debut on the heels of a celebrated off-Broadway run that netted several theater honors including the 2012 Drama Critics Circle award, Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet feels most successful in the craftsmanship of its details rather than in its overall construction. 

Karam is well-served by director PJ Paparelli’s organic, yet sleekly-staged production that opens with a thunderclap of a car accident that sets a family tragedy in motion. Using a set of heavy wooden garage doors that slide open to introduce new locations and characters, Paparelli, along with William Boles (Set Design), Jesse Klug (Lighting Design) and Rick Sims (Sound Design) work wonders in a small space to suggest a decaying Scranton, Pennsylvania, deep in the throes of a frigid winter. As the audience huddles together for a couple of hours in ATC’s  converted brick warehouse space to take momentary shelter from our own freezing temperatures, it’s not hard to be immersed in the world that Paparelli and company so persuasively create.

Additionally, Prophet’s performances are well-tuned across the board, led by Tyler Ravelson, who stars as Joseph, a 20-something Lebanese-American battling a series of mysterious maladies who suddenly is responsible for carrying for his younger 19-year-old brother, Charles (Michael Weingand) and his cantankerous elderly uncle, Bill (Will Zahrn, who scores big laughs without mugging).

Karam has an obvious gift for writing spiky dialogue that prevents Prophet from being to, well…preachy while giving ATC’s crack cast something to feast on. None more so than Natalie West, a Red Orchid Ensemble member, who knows just what to with the lovely creation of Gloria, who’s fallen from grace from a  previous high-flying publishing career in New York and now employs Joseph for a much humbler two-person operation in the Keystone State. West’s Gloria speaks with no filter (“You’re white in the same way that a Jewish person is white.”) and her questions to her young assistant are not only completely inappropriate but she also barely bothers to listen to the answer.

Likewise, Marilynn Bogetich does standout work here in multiple roles as a hard-boiled ticket agent, a school board member moderating a debate with a series of hilarious asides, and finally as an empathetic therapist.

Far from being a night of one-liners, though, Karam has a story he wants to tell. Boy, does he! In its overall depiction of Joseph’s struggle with grief and how difficult and necessary it is to keep moving despite our inclinations to stop and wallow in our pain, Prophet often feels overloaded with incidents and conceits, including:

  • The two Lebanese-American brothers are distant relatives of Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet).
  • Joseph’s boss is trying to blackmail him to allow a book to be produced about his famous family (this already sounds far-fetched as I write this) if he wants to keep his job and the health care insurance he depends on to pay for his various prescriptions and medical tests.
  • Joseph may also have MS. Tests are inconclusive.
  • Charles has a fake ear created from a skin graft.
  • In the end, Joseph may not have MS after all. (Didn’t I already say that these tests are inconclusive?)

Despite this excess of details, Prophet has many moments and performances to admire. For example, here’s a line of Karam’s dialogue so simple and seemingly profound it wouldn’t be out of place in The Prophet itself : “Cold is good when you’re depressed, because when you come inside, you instantly feel a little better.”

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

At American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.

Written by Stephen Karam

Directed by PJ Paparelli

Set Design by William Boles

Lighting Design by Jesse Klug

Sound Design by Rick Sims

Photo by: Michael Brosilow

Performance Schedule (through March 9, 2014

Thursdays and Fridays: 8:00pm

Saturdays: 2:00pm and 8:00pm

Sundays: 2:00pm

Buy tickets at atcweb.org  or by calling 773.409.4125.   

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