The setup: Stray Cat Theatre produced two other scripts by Stephen Karam, directed by Ron May, a few seasons back, and the currently running Sons of the Prophet is the third such matchup. This is a classic example of a play that people tend not to have heard of (despite its Pulitzer nomination) and can't figure anything out about from the title, so we're fortunate it's from Stray Cat, which means none of that matters because it should be pretty darn good no matter what.
The execution: Even once you know more about the subject matter/plot -- it focuses on a young gay man in a Lebanese-American Catholic family who's been mysteriously ill and unusually beset by random bad luck and tragedy in general while his weirdo boss tries to get him to agree to help produce a book that takes advantage of the family's distant relationship to Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet and, ironically, the not-always-comforting mantra "all is well" -- it doesn't give a good idea how interesting, messy, quirky, and fun the show is. A lot of that is due to Ian Christensen's lead performance as Joseph, who is able to make arguably the most boring and miserable character on stage into a person you'd like to hang out with longer.
Chase Fulton, who's acting in the Valley now after having graced stages in Portland, Oregon, and L.A., plays a Harrisburg newsman who brings a bouquet of assorted tantalizing promise and threat to the family. His scenes with Christensen are especially engaging, offering a few optional answers to one of the most popular inquiries on Yahoo! Answers.
The rest of the cast is also strong -- especially Shari Watts in a funny, hyperverbal, super-committed turn as Joseph's absolute train wreck of an employer -- and the purposefully overlapping, sometimes dangling dialogue is handled well under May's direction. It's pretty clear that the cacophony and ambiguity are deliberate and meaningful.
In addition to characters and speech that are transcendentally, beautifully lifelike, there's fun stuff such as two people reminiscing about the unfortunate characters in TV's Little House on the Prairie and a high-schooler advising his 29-year-old brother how to score in a small Pennsylvania town.
Eric Beeck's scenic design confused me at first. It's anchored by a realistic box set that, for the most part, represents Joseph's home, with space downstage for scenes that take place elsewhere. What trips it up is that the play's very first scene is one of the "elsewhere" ones, and my brain really wanted to incorporate everything I could see into the setting. However, the script's loose shiftiness soon brought me back in, and the design concept winds up being a good, creative fit, solving the problems the playwright caused (though collaborative artists don't like to refer to them as problems). And the bathroom is terrific.
The verdict: There's a reason this show's selling so well. In some ways, it's an example of the kind of good old-fashioned storytelling that has always brought people together. In other ways, it's a microscopic view of huge sagas of oppression and triumph. Ultimately, besides being funny and sweet, it reminds us that stories don't really wrap up or end -- there's just a point when you have to stop telling. Or listening. Or both.
Sons of the Prophet continues through Saturday, March 2, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street. Purchase tickets here or call 480-634-6435. Admission is $15 to $25.