"It's like King Lear if it were written by a person who has watched a lot of Family Guy episodes on TV."
That is how director Scott Miller summarizes Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam, opening this weekend at Dobama Theatre. According to Miller, it's a play that deals with serious pain and suffering, yet it has an outrageous comic sensibility.
As dark comedies go, this script appears to have plenty of darkness to spare, including death, sickness and physical problems of various kinds.
It all centers on a Lebanese-American family, the Douaihys, and a young man, Joseph, who must endure various tortures. His father is killed in a freak car accident — he crashed into a stuffed deer placed on the road by a high school jock as a prank.
Meanwhile, Joseph himself is beset by a mysterious illness that hampers his ability to care for his teenage brother Charles and his deteriorating, aging Uncle Bill. But most of the characters have a wry take on life to go along with their infirmities.
Miller notes, "This is a play that balances on the razor edge of pathos and the ridiculous. It explores what happens when your life falls apart and how people cope by maintaining their dignity and, yes, their sense of humor."
Additional complications involve the African-American football hero, Vin, who is responsible for the fatal prank. There is also a book packager, Gloria, who wants Joseph to parlay his continuing miseries and his family's distant familial connection to the prophet Kahlil Gibran into a blockbuster memoir.
Herding all these people through such a story fraught with tragedy and overlaid with laughs is a daunting task, since most plays lean heavily in one direction or the other. When both must be balanced, the question is where to begin.
"You have to start with real people," says Miller, "you must focus on their emotional truth. It's like Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Jean Stapleton, who was Edith Bunker on All in the Family. Those characters were real people first, and the humor grew out of their individual reality."
Miller asserts that his eight-person cast is up to this challenge. "These are all smart actors who have the ability to translate theoretical ideas, and psychological conditions, into believable behavior. That makes the misery as well as the humor ring true."
Another interesting aspect of the play for director Miller is the way the playwright captures the essence of family life. "Karam's dialogue, which is often overlapping, conveys the texture of family talk around a dining room table. Threads of past conversations are picked up and then dropped, just as happens in real life.
"In addition, these are dense relationships that generate lots of questions for the actors, and for me as the director. So ourrehearsal period has involved a lot ofpuzzles that we needed to solve. I think that makes the process exciting for everyone, including the audience."
As for the appropriateness of humor being so interwoven with tragedy, one need merely consider the linked theatrical masks. And as Miller observes, "When you laugh at horrible things, it doesn't diminish the despair you feel. But it puts that pain in a different context and gives you a chance to breathe, a chance for some relief."
Sons of the Prophet, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, opens February 22 and runs through March 17 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.