The well-intended cliché “God never gives you more than you can stand, ” offers precious little comfort for the world’s atheists. Stephen Karam’s latest deftly examines the nature of suffering, the role of faith and the possibility of finding comfort when the bosom of the Almighty isn’t an option.
Hapless Joseph (an affable Tyler Ravelson) suffers from a mysterious illness while grieving the loss of his father in a tragic accident, caring for his disabled, cantankerous uncle (a hilariously inappropriate Will Zahrn) and supporting his brother Charles (Michael Weingand, negotiating the gap between persuasive and bitchy). Joseph takes a job with flakey-yet-flinty publisher Gloria (Natalie West) for medical benefits, while sidestepping her efforts to exploit his family’s tenuous connection to famed poet Khalil Gibran. As Joseph’s health spirals, he reaches out to reporter Timothy (a subtly oily Greg Matthew Anderson) for comfort.
Director PJ Paparelli successfully manages to visually organize the conscious chaos of Karam’s dialogue; Ravelson, Zahrn and Weingand sound like a Three Stooges’ routine minus the slapstick. The bull-in-a-china-shop indelicacy that all the characters engage in is both tragic and mortifyingly funny. West’s Gloria is imbued with such effective flightiness that one is tempted to take the character for granted, until West’s performance makes it clear that the woman will not be denied. Karam doesn’t offer an easy happy ending here; Joseph continues to struggle with his health. But the playwright gives us a lovely moment of respite as Joseph adjusts to his overwhelming burden. It’s a flash of hope which suggests that even in the face of great suffering, the support of loved ones can give us the strength to withstand a bit more. (Lisa Buscani)
American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron, (773)409-4125, atcweb.org. $33-$43. Through March 9.