By AUDREY WELLS
"Your joy is your sorrow unmasked," writes Kahlil Gibran in his 1923 classic "The Prophet."
"Sons of the Prophet," currently in production by the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre, illustrates Gibran's meaning. Using gentle irony and witty dialog, this play about a family of characters who shoulder terrible burdens manages to be funny without being farcical.
The burdens, while terrible, are ordinary. Sooner or later, we all experience some variation of them, be they sudden loss, chronic pain, professional humiliation, social isolation or even, simply, diminished expectations. These are the problems of life.
Humor opens the play before a word is uttered. A spotlight comes up dramatically to illuminate a life-size fake deer, and on cue, the audience chuckles. Why not? It's like seeing a plastic goose in holiday clothes center stage. But then we hear sounds of a car crash followed by soft music, and the tone changes.
Frequent, quick shifts from funny to serious set a rapid tempo. We enter the bad-luck world where terrible things happen to good people. As Gloria, a character who voices many words of wisdom, aptly puts it, they are people who have been "suddenly sidelined."
The play, set in eastern, rural, working-class Pennsylvania, emphasizes that region. For example, we hear the local slang word "pank," originally a miner's term, meaning to pat something down.
The story centers on recently orphaned young adult brothers Joseph and Charles, whose father and uncle came from Lebanon — and not Lebanon, Pa. The family's religion is Maronite, an eastern branch of Roman Catholicism. We gain intimate knowledge about this family, including that both brothers are gay.
The playwright, whose background is somewhat similar, has fun shattering stereotypes about what's typical and celebrates the family's American identity. Turns out the geographic center of the United States is Lebanon, Kan., and that fact gives this immigrant family a secure feeling of home.
Set in 2006-07, much of the humor comes from the foibles of our modern world. We hear Joseph calling his doctor, trying to get test results, worried he has something serious, plucking his way frustratingly through an automated phone system and being sent in circles. Things heavy are made light, and we laugh. There might be no solutions, but there is relief.
This is a warm tale, ably directed by Gary Ambler in the cozy Station Theatre. It deserves to be seen, and the cast will jell better into their complex roles as the three-week run continues.
Joel Higgins, very good as Joseph, and David Mor, also strong as the younger Charles, really came across as brothers in the scenes they shared. They are most open with each other and at the same time know best how to get under the other's skin.
Matt Hester does nicely in the role of the uncle, Bill, the patriarch from the old country who is a source of pathos and humor. He's outspoken but can't get the current lingo right. The character has weak lungs, so Bill is unable to really bellow, which I found unfortunate. The strong accent also may hold back his delivery a bit.
David Kierski as Timothy, a journalist and love interest of Joseph's whose knowledge of suffering seems so far to come only from observation, does a good job with his portrayal. Gregory Stewart Jr. also does well with his tough role of Vin, a teen whose prank backfires with serious consequences.
The cast's veteran actors have confidence and experience to help hold it all together. Chris Taber is excellent in her role of Gloria, a transplant from Manhattan and Joseph's kind but anxious boss. Deb Richardson makes the most of her minor roles and is quite funny. Similarly, Barbara Evans brings humor to her three characters and closes out the last scene poignantly.
The set, flexible and efficient for the scenes, uses drab colors. Even though this is a comedy about suffering, I would have liked some more vibrancy, maybe a touch of something from the old country.
Some acquaintance with Gibran's book would enhance appreciation of the play. The family claims common ancestry with the author, a Lebanese-American, and the play's title is drawn from that connection.
Organized into scenes that are named according to different sections of Gibran's book — "On Work," "On Friendship," "On Home" — these titles are projected high up and to the right on the stage. Without a familiarity with Gibran's work, they might be confusing but won't disturb understanding of the play. Knowing the book, however, could add a layer of meaning.
It was worth braving the winter weather on a recent night to see "Sons of the Prophet." As Gloria puts it, "Bitter cold is a blessing" because once you go inside somewhere warm you are "aware of vitality in a way you weren't before."
If you go
What: Celebration Company presents "Sons of the Prophet," a family dramedy by Stephen Karam, directed by Gary Ambler
When: 8 p.m. Sunday; Wednesday-Saturday through March 9.
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway, U
Admission: $10 Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday; $15 on Friday and Saturday
Reservations: 384-4000; http://www.stationtheatre.com
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.