Stephen Karam's play Sons of the Prophet is an expansively interested work presented in a modest package. Karam explores, by way of a young Lebanese-American man in central Pennsylvania and his family following his father's death, questions as open as the nature of suffering and identity. But the is ultimately hampered by an overly cautious approach to the piece's stakes.
Joseph, Karam's central character, has an air of Job about him. On top of his father's death, he has to contend with leg pains evading diagnosis, memories of a once-promising running career, romance run around on the family tragedy, and a teenage brother and an ailing uncle to care for.
This is not to factor in the fate of Lebanese refugees suffering through a far-away war, a spectre lurking in the background, lending a global possibility to the history of this suffering. In the succession of Joseph and his family's tribulations, Karam illustrates the ways in which large tragedies don't forestall the appearance of more mundane trials and that pain will be unevenly distributed. Unlike the Old Testament God, Karam cannot reward his Job twice over. Instead, Joseph is left with the possibility that pain can be endured.
The characters surrounding Joseph provide opportunities for conflicts on several planes of identity. His uncle remains a link to a heritage and faith that Joseph and his brother, Charles, have largely shed. Yet, following their father's death, Charles is drawn to find meaning in this faith while Joseph remains distant. Along a parallel conversation, Charles and Joseph are both gay but emerge at differing views as to how significantly this impacts the way they act or dress. Whether drawing from the elements of a shared culture or from within oneself, identity as explored by Karam is a continual process of self-construction.
And yet for the ambitious scope of the questions Karam presents, the stakes never rise to the same level. For all that they are given to contend with, in the end no one is significantly changed. Joseph will go on nearly the same as before. A play need not dip into high drama to incite change; in Eugene O'Neill, two people can have their lives deeply shaken talking under the moon. But Karam’s noncommittal resolution and shyness from profundity hinders a lasting impact on his characters and by extension his reader.