GableStage’s ‘Sons of the Prophet’ gets laughs in spite of sobering themes

Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet hardly sounds like a comedy. Most of its characters are suffering in one way or another. A prank goes awry, leading to a man’s death. Physical and psychological problems bedevil those for whom options aren’t abundant.

Yet Karam’s play, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in drama, is indeed extravagantly, unexpectedly funny. In an impactfully directed, superbly acted new production at GableStage, the laugh-laced drama is also touchingly insightful and resonant in that way that transcends the specifics of its story. That Sons of the Prophet made the Pulitzer shortlist isn’t surprising, given the richness of Karam’s writing.

Staged with minute attention to timing and detail by Joseph Adler, the play centers on the Douaihy family, Lebanese-Americans living in down-on-its-luck Nazareth, Pa. Elder brother Joseph (Michael Focas) was a runner with Olympic aspirations, until his knees and now the rest of his body turned on him. His 18-year-old younger brother Charles (Michael Kushner) was born with just one ear, though the facsimile of a second was added surgically when he was a kid. Both brothers are gay, Charles more extravagant in his day-to-day declaration of his sexual orientation, Joseph so understated and sartorially blended in that Charles quips, “If people in Nazareth think you’re gay, it’s because they think you’re a lesbian.”

Also in the brothers’ orbit are Uncle Bill (George Schiavone), their father’s devout Maronite Catholic brother, a man whose health is rapidly deteriorating; Vin (Edson Jean), a high school football star whose action had fatal consequences; Timothy (Jose Urbino), a TV reporter with unprincipled ambition; and, most delightfully, Joseph’s boss Gloria (Patti Gardner), who cooks up one more nutty scheme when she learns that the Douaihys are distantly related to best-selling The Prophet author Kahlil Gibran.

Emotionally Gloria is a mess. Her once-hot Manhattan career in the book biz is in tatters thanks to a “memoir” that turned out to stretch the truth. Her husband “left” her by committing suicide. She has a little problem resisting drugs and a bigger one with the emotional boundaries Joseph strives to keep firmly in place. And she has an unerring gift for saying just the wrong thing at the worst time. And yet Gardner makes foot-in-mouth, clueless Gloria hilarious and sympathetic.

Joseph is the play’s pivotal character and, thanks to an unerring and moving performance by Focas, its heart. Worried, overburdened and in pain, Joseph keeps his diminishing family together, and Focas achieves both a breezy brotherly connection with Kushner and a respectful yet frustrated one with Schavione as Joseph’s problematic elder. The attraction — intellectual, emotional and physical — between Focas’ controlled Joseph and Urbino’s slick reporter, is both convincing and hot. From one and all, including Carol Caselle and Barbara Sloan in multiple small roles, the acting abundantly serves the play, as do Lyle Baskin’s sets, Jeff Quinn’s lighting, Matt Corey’s sound design and Estela Vrancovich’s costumes.

Acceptance of suffering as part of life’s journey is an element of Sons of the Prophet and of The Prophet itself. But Karam’s fine play also offers the reassurance that, with empathy and loyalty and laughter, some of that suffering can be diminished.