Abraham Lincoln once said, "With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die."
As I reflect on Stephen Karam's "Sons of the Prophet," now on stage at Heartland Theatre Company, I am struck by how beautifully Mr. Karam's painful comedy embodies Mr. Lincoln's sentiment.
Humor, in times of strife, is often our savior.
In this sensitive family drama, we meet Joseph Douaihy, a young Lebanese-American who was an Olympic hopeful until he was sidelined by injury.
Painfully private, the young man is the hub of his suffering family, utilizing all of his strength, both physical and spiritual, to hold his clan together, even though he himself is falling apart.
Joseph, his brother Charles, and his cantankerous Uncle Bill, are all struggling to recover from the sudden death of the boys' father, because there are so many unanswered questions.
Though the official cause of his death was a heart attack, he had been involved in an auto accident just days before. Did one event cause the other?
Worse yet, evidence is now mounting against the high school football hero, who inadvertently may have caused the accident by placing the opposing team's mascot in the middle of the road.
It seems Mr. Douaihy swerved to avoid hitting what he thought was a deer (it was fake) and lost control of his vehicle. Though the town is sympathetic to the Douaihy family, the team is in the playoffs, and school officials want to delay any punishment until after the team clinches the championship.
Joseph's anguish is further complicated by nearly debilitating pain that no one can accurately diagnose, despite every medical test imaginable.
The final burden he carries is the weight of his emotionally needy boss Gloria, a once-thriving author struggling to make her comeback. When she learns that Joseph is distantly related to the poet Kahlil Gibran, she is convinced she has found the story that will resurrect her career. If only Joseph will let her tell it.
Under the direction of John Ficca, "Sons of the Prophet," which one critic called "the funniest play about human suffering you're likely to see," features a talented ensemble, led by Kyle Chandler Fitzgerald as Joseph. He shines in his demanding role, displaying tremendous and consistent focus, as well as palpable, appropriate exasperation.
Tim Olsen is fascinating as Charles. Often underestimated due to a birth defect, Charles, as portrayed exquisitely by Olsen, is introverted yet bold, dramatic yet hilarious.
Jeremy Stiller, as the elder Douaihy, is delightfully irascible, and Nancy Nickerson, as the troubled Gloria, is endearing and aloof. Additional cast members include Graham Gusloff as Timothy, Emmanuel K. Jackson as Vin, and Carolyn Stuckey and Anastasia S. Ferguson in multiple supporting roles.
Heartland Theatre's adherence to its mission "to explore the human condition," continues to elevate the conversation and connect us by "calling attention to the one experience we all have in common — the experience of being human."
With all of today's uncertainty, this production is a must see.
Stiller is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.