Along dead grandfather of Lebanese-Maronite Christian origin is one of the more formidable if unseen characters in Stephen Karam’s play, “Sons of the Prophet.” The man is the enduring conscience that drives this tragicomedy/satire/farce/hysterium about immigrant manners and mores, now receiving its Chicago premiere by the American Theater Company, under the whip-smart direction of PJ Paparelli.
This patriarchal figure, who settled in eastern Pennsylvania and labored in the steel mills, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, French and eventually English. He also might have been a distant relative of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet-philosopher whose book, “The Prophet,” became a cult favorite of the 1960s counterculture here.
Ironically enough, the best way to describe the condition of the old man’s heirs — two gay grandsons, Joseph (Tyler Ravelson), and younger brother Charles (Michael Weingand) — is to use a Yiddish word. The boys, as well as nearly everyone else they encounter, have nothing but tsuris. They are bedeviled by troubles, woes, sickness and death. They are 21st century Jobs.
Joseph, 27, a promising runner sidelined by knee injuries, is suddenly beset with a slew of other undiagnosed medical problems. He also is trying to wrangle health insurance from his employer, Gloria (Natalie West), a nutcase publisher who has fled New York after professional embarrassment and the suicide of her husband.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s hard-working widower dadhas just been killed in a car accident as he tried to swerve around a deer decoy placed in the road by Vin (Tony Santiago), a smart, biracial foster child and star athlete.
As for Charles, he is deaf in one ear and something of an idiot savant. He also has a terror of being abandoned. Both brothers also must deal with their elderly, crippled, politically incorrect Uncle Bill (Will Zahrn), who has moved into their house.
And there is much more. Desperate to regain her reputation, Gloria wants the very private Joseph to write a book about his family and play up any connection to Gibran. Joseph also is being pursued by Timothy (Greg Matthew Anderson), a young, handsome, supremely privileged (and gay) local television reporter. Joseph and Timothy could be poster boys for the gap between the working poor and the wildly entitled.
Gibran’s essay titles (on work, friendship, pain, reason and passion) initiate each scene, as calamity and absurdist comedy collide, and as Joseph recalls how his dad would say “all is well,” because he knew all could be even worse.
The performances here (including those by Marilynn Bogetich and Carin Silkaitis) are uniformly terrific. So is William Boles’ set design. Karam (author of “Columbinus”) can test your patience at moments. But his beautiful ending — a Zenlike moment of physical therapy winningly played by Ravelson and Bogetich — reinforces the power of work and silence in the wake of all the talk.