Joseph, the main character in Sons of the Prophet, currently showing on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium stage, is a marathon champion sidelined by chronic knee pain and unexplained physical symptoms. His entire life has taken a downturn as unrelenting challenges ensue–from his father’s unexpected death to witnessing his uncle’s own declining health, from taking a crappy desk job under a needy, unstable boss to have health insurance to necessarily becoming his uncle’s medical advocate in the convoluted Medicare system, from becoming head of household for himself and his younger brother Charles to facing loneliness as a gay man in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The emotional toll has left him “cut off on the knees,” with enough stress to cripple even the strongest of men.
Knowing only about the lead character’s marathon background, three marathon runners attended Sons of the Prophet on Saturday to watch then give us their take on the play. They were:
Peter Erickson, who ran in junior high as an outlet to get out of the house. With continual travel in his adulthood, he stopped exercising for years but returned to running in 2008. He loved running 5Ks, increased to half marathons, then finally committed in 2010 to his first marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon. With a fall this past winter, Erickson was sidelined to walking the dog but has no plan to stop running.
Jon Thomas, who was introduced to running by a mentor during his 1986 residency at the Mayo Clinic. Thomas had exercised and remained fit during medical school, yet felt dreadful after his first long-distance run. To see his over 50-year-old mentor complete a mile in seven minutes truly impressed the then 25-year-old Thomas. He continued running and, in 2011, ran his first marathon, also the Twin Cities Marathon. He has now run it and the Los Angeles Marathon more than once. His future goal: the Boston Marathon.
Eric Larson, who attended junior high in a class of 35 students in Shepherd, Montana, recalled that “everyone” went out for sports. He was a skinny 13-year-old who lacked arm strength and also not fast so settled on long-distance running. He especially loved 10Ks. Like Peter, Eric did not return to running until his adulthood when a friend talked him into doing a relay marathon in Rochester, Minnesota. After passing the baton in that race, Eric decided to continue running, specifically aiming to actually complete a full marathon. In 2003, he ran Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. He is currently a diehard squash player, though still runs the odd 5K with his teenage daughter.
Being a physician, Thomas initially related more to the medical aspects of Sons of the Prophet, which he felt were portrayed quite realistically, such as patients’ struggle with healthcare costs, the nightmare of navigating Medicare, and most strongly, the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
Thomas wondered, as Joseph’s doctor performed a spinal tap and ran tests to find the root of his symptoms, whether Joseph’s psychic pain had actually manifested as physical pain. At the hospital, Thomas sees many patients overly stressed by the complexities of modern life and pained without explanation. Their tests come back negative; there is no diagnosis for them, yet they are suffering.
Larson noted that even Joseph himself wonders in the play: “Could the inflammation be caused by something…else ….?” As a squash player, Larson notices that he is in good shape for squash but not necessarily for soccer, biking, or now running, whenever he dips into those sports. Similarly, each character in the play does well in their own area “of being” but when set in situations that they are not “in shape” for, then they have problems and experience intense stress.
Having been sidelined from running this winter, Erickson could relate to what it’s like to want but not be able to run. He would have been miserable (and been a pain to be around) had he not been able to mitigate his loss by taking long walks, something Joseph could not do. Erickson knows how it feels when “running becomes a need; you can’t wait to get out there, especially after a hard day.” Joseph had no choice but to stop running, which was a core part of his being.
All three reflected on the transformative stages of a long run–how one can reach a point of being “meditative yet actively thinking” for Erickson, of being in the zone when “solutions to seemingly intractable problems would organically come about” for Larson or “becoming one with the environment and feeling in flow–smooth–as if running on pillows” for Thomas. Pleasure is followed by the agony of pushing through those last miles, when the body may feel like it wants to break yet the mind holds firm through all the hurting.
To the runners, playwright Stephen Karam’s decision for Joseph to be a marathoner rather than a football or baseball player, was, of course, because a marathon–not a sprint–is a journey, just as life is a journey. They connected how a marathon has its stages–meditative, euphoric, suffering–similar to life stages. And they understood how as in life, according to Erickson, “marathon running depends on the strength of your mind to get through the difficult parts.”
“There are multiple layers of struggle in the play,” said Erickson. The play delves into race, gender, religion and generational issues, to name just a few.
“And each of those layers is a marathon, ” Thomas pointed out.
(Upcoming blog – RUNNING ON: Three Marathon Runners Talk More About Sons of the Prophet)