"Your joy is your sorrow unmasked," states one of the heady aphorisms in the famous book "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. There's a lot of joy in Cadence Theatre Company's latest production, "Sons of the Prophet," and it's rooted in seeing the sorrow of one particularly unlucky family unmasked.
In this masterfully constructed story by Stephen Karam, the fictional Douaihys are distant relatives of Kahlil Gibran, but they share little in common with the poet except their Lebanese heritage. The show turns the family's compounding tragedies into affecting, engrossing and surprisingly funny theater.
Director Anna Johnson keeps the pace tight with many scenes of overlapping dialogue that replicate the inelegant way real people communicate. Sometimes interactions between characters continue in the background while focus shifts to another part of the stage. Tension builds but is regularly released in hearty doses of humor. The result is a bracing production that grabs your attention and doesn't let go.
It isn't always an easy show to watch: Joseph Douaihy (Ryan Bechard) starts suffering from mysterious ailments shortly after his father dies, and his attempts to find the cause include an excruciating on-stage spinal tap. His navigation of his medical nightmare is buffeted by intrusions from his cantankerous uncle Bill (Alan Sader), impish little brother, Charles (D. J. Cummings), and kooky boss Gloria (Melissa Johnston Price). His father's death was the result of a thoughtless prank by high-school football star, Vin (Marquis Hazelwood), prompting a board meeting and media event covered by local newscaster Timothy (Evan Nasteff).
The story's resolution isn't neat but the fun comes from seeing the clumsy ways the characters collide. Charles, who is gay, is clearly enamored with Vin; Gloria and Bill are befuddled by each other; and Joseph finds solace in a rocky relationship with Timothy, both of whom are also gay. Supporting players Jacqueline Jones and Kimberly Jones-Clark offer small slices of comic zest, popping up as everything from a droll school board member to an inappropriately cheerful physician's assistant.
Cadence produces its shows in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre and this production makes good use of the black box Theatre Gym in Virginia Rep's downtown complex. Three sliding panels dominate Terrie Powers' clever set design that easily transforms to render settings as varied as the Douaihy's living room, a doctor's office and a board room. Brian Barker's lighting design ably illuminates the shifting locales and Lynn West's costumes add a spry touch of color to Charles and an old-world frumpiness to Bill.
Johnson has a history of attracting incredible actors for her casts, and she keeps up the tradition here. Bechard plays Joseph with tripwire intensity that would border on too severe if not leavened by affectionate scenes with Nasteff's responsive Timothy. Price chews the scenery gleefully as her Gloria vacillates wildly between concern, grief and hilarious self-involvement, while Cummings and Sader both offer bold and honest performances.
"Sons of the Prophet" isn't a laugh-a-minute joke fest. But the humor offered in this affectionate portrayal of a strong, struggling family is unexpected, intelligent and ultimately very satisfying. S
"Sons of the Prophet" is produced by Cadence Theater in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre and runs through March 9 at 114 W. Broad St. Tickets at 282-2620 or online at va-rep.org.