Review: 'Sons of the Prophet' at Normal Ave

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  • Katherine Hebert, Contributing Critic - New York City

In Normal Ave’s final installation in their 2019 season, “Sons of the Prophet” explores the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of senseless tragedy.  This production has made its home at the Medicine Show Theatre and will play through May 5th.  At the beginning of the matinee I saw, the show’s director Shannon Molly Flynn announced Normal Ave’s residency at the Medicine Show theatre. So first and foremost a huge congratulations to them for finding a home for what continues to be a talented and up and coming theatre company.

Now down to business:

Following the many plights of the Lebanese Douaihy family, Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet” tells the story of a 29 year-old gay man and his 18 year-old also gay brother Charles. The pair are left alone when their father gets into a car accident caused by a prank gone awry, their father survives the accident only to succumb to a heart attack a week later. As the brothers attempt to navigate the accumulating media circus surrounding their family and the perpetrator of the prank Vin, (the star of the local football team) they are then tasked with taking care of their aging Uncle Bill all whilst Joseph’s own health is rapidly deteriorating. It’s a comedy. And it should be stated that this piece is uproariously funny. Which only makes sense as most comedy at its roots comes from a tragic place. Many mental health professionals argue that comedy is a coping mechanism as well as a tool we use to process difficult subjects in a more palatable way. Stephen Karam’s characters spend the duration of the play desperately searching for meaning in the face of their many tragedies but Karam is more concerned with how we suffer rather than why. As a result though the audience isn’t given the typical commercially viable resolution that many may want. We are instead given a resolution that resonates with us emotionally. “Sons of the Prophet” is an exploration of the human spirit in the wake of senseless suffering.

Shannon Molly Flynn is a relatively young director, this only being her third directorial endeavor with Normal Ave. but if this production is any indication of her abilities it is safe to say that she has a long future ahead of her. Flynn takes Karam’s play and crafts an intimate portrait of a family in the midst of immense tragedy with quite a bit of fluidity. In her interpretation of this piece every moment is an opportunity to deepen the world of the piece. In Flynn’s world, even the set changes have a thematic purpose as well as a functional one. Flynn utilizes these transitionary moments as a sort of mini movement pieces that both  foreshadow and establish relationships. Flynn has taken this text and found intention in every syllable and executes this intent with an impressive specificity.

Additionally this is one of the rare cases where we are given a cast that has a true sense of ensemble without a weak link in site. Getchie Argetsinger’s take on the ever-eccentric, ever-endearing Gloria offers up a comedic reprieve every time she steps on the stage.  Argetsinger commands every scene she’s in crafting a character that is both outlandish yet grounded firmly in reality. Jordan Dallam as Vin manages to garner sympathy from  the audience on more then one occasion with his nuanced take on a young man that makes a tragic (though admittedly stupid) mistake. Jeremy Landes as Timothy is smooth-talking and career-minded without being insincere. At the end of the piece we still aren’t quite sure how we feel about him, but either way we are ensnared by his charm the same way our protagonist is. The piece is then rounded out by the Ensemble played by Karen M. Hoffman, Starr Kirkland and Samantha Smart all of whom have stand-out moments in the piece as they take on multiple roles and give specificity to eachone.  But “Sons of the  Prophet” lives or dies by the capabilities of the family at the center of the story. Fortunately this trio did not disappoint. John F. Higgins gives Uncle Bill as much integrity as one can give a man who is literally deteriorating in front of our eyes. Higgins gives us an ornery good-hearted man trying to hold his family together whilst maintaining his dignity and pride as he and his tribe suffer blow after blow. He is easily the heart of the show as his character straddles the line of justified anger and doing the right thing anyway. David Merlen as Charles is funny, charismatic and copes with the tragedy with humor unlike the rest of his family. Merlen’s Charles doesn’t dwell in his circumstances but rather searches to find the humanity in those that have wronged him, and the comedy in their admittedly hopeless circumstances. Matthew Thomas Scott is easily tasked with one of the most difficult tracks of the show. He is rarely offstage and in a near constant state of distress. To his credit Scott’s take on Joseph is emotionally guarded. This works to the actor’s benefit, by putting the emphasis on his character holding it together rather than breaking down makes his inevitable emotional climax all the affective. His chemistry with Merlen is undeniable, when they play off of one another you believe they are brothers.

Combine this off with a top notch lighting and sound design as well as a set with a minimalist aesthetic that becomes impressively complex once the play opens up and you have a whole hearted recommendation from me. Normal Ave has once again given its audience a performance that is entertaining, affective and grounded in reality. This company is a true testament to creating your own work and I for one cannot wait to see what they do next.