Feb 1, 2012

A Secret Buried in "Sons"

The February issue of American Theatre is out, and it includes the complete text of Stephen Karam's lovely, insinuating comedy/drama, Sons of the Prophet, which was perhaps slightly over-praised in its recent Roundabout production, but not by much; it's a rich and substantial work from an extremely agile and thoughtful young writer.

Sons is the kind of play that makes tenuous links between characters, incidents, and insights seem serendipitous, sneakily profound; though some critics have seen this as a kind of twee indie-sitcom shorthand for substance, I think they sell the play short. It's a craftier and richer canvas than it may first appear, with puzzles and private mysteries quietly woven into it. I happened upon on one such juicy inter-textual secret, in fact, while researching Karam for my Times feature last fall; the playwright swore me to silence then, but I feel that the publication of the script makes it fair game.

Sons of the Prophet concerns a Lebanese-American family in suburban Pennsylvania dealing both gamely and awkwardly with a series of ailments and calamities, though "family" may be too grand a term for the Douaihy household, which consists during the play's action of two guys on either side of 20 and their elderly Uncle Bill. Though Uncle Bill is virtually alone in his reliance on the family's Maronite Catholic faith, at one point his youngest nephew, fey Charles, gets worked up about a bit of spiritual synchronicity. He's curious about the Arabic writing under a picture of St. Rafka, a long-suffering Lebanese saint who was their late father's favorite, so he asks Uncle Bill to translate it; it reads "All is well," the famous mantra of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese author of The Prophet, to which Karam's title refers. Then Charles and his brother Joseph have this interesting exchange:
CHARLES: "All is well." It means "All is well," so—I wanted to see what Gibran poem that's from so online, the first thing that came up is this hymn where—that's what's repeated in the chorus, "All is well, All is well," I put it on your iPod, it's in your bag just listen to it—
JOSEPH: No, now now are you / crazy?—
CHARLES: ...no, no, Joseph, take 10 seconds and listen to it, the song is—okay under the song, online, there was this scripture passage/that says—
JOSEPH: What scripture? Are you insane?
CHARLES: —it matches Dad's birthday perfectly, 12:17—
JOSEPH: Charles, you can't keep/doing this—
CHALRES: "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment." "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment." (Beat) Of course that could be random, but...finding it after...from the picture?...(Pissed Joseph isn't jumping in)...are you there?
I didn't recognize the scripture, so I used Charles' own Internet-based methods to track it down and was quite surprised where Google led me: to a Mormon text attributed to Joseph Smith (yes, the scripture number is actually 121:7, a correction that comes out in Karam's play). What the heck is an LDS scripture doing in a Maronite Catholic context?

The answer lies in the other project Karam was working on while completing Sons: Dark Sisters, the mostly excellent chamber opera he wrote with composer Nico Muhly, about troubles at a polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints compound based closely on Colorado City, Ariz. There's also a direct FLDS reference in Sons—a half-crazed book agent played by Joanna Gleason clips a photo of children clinging to a parent from news reports of a raid on the same compound, thinking it would make a good cover image for a proposed Douaihy family memoir (to be called, naturally, Sons of the Prophet). Got that?

Now, I wouldn't claim that these hand-stitched links between Smith and Rafka, and between two persecuted minority faiths, are a key to understanding Karam's work, which works plenty well without any special knowledge. But knowing that he's laced a textual puzzle into it gives me both an appreciation for his craftiness, and some inkling why Sons, for all its deceptively breezy pleasures, also moves on a subterranean level to touch tenderer, stranger truths. Who knows what other mysteries lurk in there? The point is, without naming them we can feel them at work. (I had more to say about the play's spiritual dimensions at the end of this review.)

1 comment:

Stephen Karam said...

You remain the only one who discovered this! And of course the song he references in that dialogue you cite (and that we played during the show http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8AYr-3ZFWI) -- is one of the most famous Mormon hymns). There are definitely a few more "secrets" in that script - probably the only reason I felt okay including the words "DaVinci Code" in the play :) Your insights continue to be appreciated, I think your understanding of the way faith/religion function in the story is dead-on. A final note: my father's birthday IS December 17th. That probably only means something special to ME, but I do think it informs the sincerity of Charles' magical thinking.