Susan Sontag begins her 1978 book-length essay Illness as Metaphor like this, “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.”
Illness is also the dominant metaphor in Stephen Karam’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Sons of the Prophet. Karam, like Sontag, disabuses his audience of the idea that there’s something noble or romantic about suffering. Whereas Sontag cites close readings of literary references on illness, Karam locates the subject in one Lebanese American family, providing them with a store of dyspeptic fits of rage and wit.
Joseph Douaihy (Eric Kerr), the main character, has an unspecified illness that has abruptly ended his career as a professional athlete. He’s undergoing a series of tests: it could be nerve damage or MS. Both of his parents have recently died, leaving him in charge of his younger brother Charles (Stephen Kanaski) and Bill (Donald Currie), their ailing uncle. When we learn that Charles was born without one ear, the number and variety of afflictions that this family suffers from starts to feel biblical in scope.
But Karam hasn’t written a tragedy. Or if he has, it’s cleverly disguised as a comedy. He manages an even tone throughout without leaning too far in either direction. It certainly helps that the director of this production, Ben Randle, embraces the changeability of those theatrical masks. Tragedy and comedy aren’t mutually exclusive on stage or in real life. He also hired a nimble cast of actors who boldly and briskly embody that sense of emotional splitting.
Gloria (Cheryl Smith), Joseph’s boss, offers the strongest, and strangest, example of Sontag’s acknowledgment that we hold “dual citizenship” in the territories of sickness and health. To describe her as neurotic would be too easy. Instead, and this is what is so often missing from unsound plays, Karam accounts for her odd behavior with a plausible backstory and monologues that are psychologically in step with it. There is no disconnect between her words and her actions. Gloria’s language overflows with Too Much Information. Nobody wants to hear what she has to say. Her lines express the burden of her isolation but Smith delivers them with a resonant and wry élan. Gloria has more than one illness of her own, including clinical depression, but when Smith speaks in her voice we laugh with and feel for her.
The subplot fueling the action of the play concerns the recent death of Joseph’s and Charles’ father. Vin (Marcus Steele), a local college kid, inadvertently caused his death. For the three remaining members of the Douaihy family, the accident is life-changing but more so for Joseph. He becomes the de facto head of the family but is emotionally unprepared for the job. Kerr, though, is at home in Joseph’s skin, easily expressing his discomfort with conviction. When a potential love interest arrives on the scene, it forces him, in a different way, to confront the complications and frustrations of becoming an adult and a man.
Sons of the Prophet also explores, if recessively, the duality of living between two cultures. The Douaihy brothers are both Lebanese and American, and, it turns out, both of them are also gay. Their sexuality, along with their Lebanese heritage, is presented as a given, nodded at and accepted by all. The play was originally produced during President Obama’s first term in 2011, when the country had supposedly embraced the age of identity politics. After the November election, that notion has faded as fast as an unearthed relic that’s unused to the Earth’s polluted atmosphere. That the play itself is vibrant and funny and relevant only underlines the poignancy of an era that’s about to come to a shocking and abrupt close.
Sons of the Prophet, through Dec. 18, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van NessAve., 415-861-8972 or nctcsf.org.