Regional Reviews: Phoenix
In a brisk but full 95 minutes, The Humans is set around a seemingly simple Thanksgiving family dinner at the Chinatown, New York, apartment that Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard have just moved into. Brigid's family have come for the holiday dinner and to see the new apartment as well as to get better acquainted with Richard, whom they barely know. Brigid's parents Erik and Deirdre have driven in from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Brigid's grandmother Momo, and her sister Aimee is also present. As the play unfolds in real time, all six characters reveal secrets as their vulnerabilities are exposed and their deepest fears inch closer to reality.
Karam's work focuses on the horrors of human behavior and the fleeting American Dream. He also adds in plenty of ominous overtones and in-depth talk and analysis of the dreams that both Erik and Richard have recently been having. By centering the play on a tight-knit family and focusing it on the underlying dread we've all had to deal with in the past two decades since such significant horrors as the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the financial and housing meltdown, and the recent increase in destructive natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy have added an underlying and always present presence of doom in our lives, Karam has crafted a work that is a combination of two classic pieces of drama: the family play and the thriller. He incorporates all of those anxiety-ridden recent events into the piece and also focuses on our most basic fears, such as loss of income, loss of a loved one, illness, and even death.
However, while Karam's dialogue and situations are riveting, realistic, relatable and raw, his repeated inclusion of the details of Erik's nightmares, and the incorporation of dread by way of the frequent and loud noises that come from just outside and above the two-story apartment, may have some audience members scratching their heads as to their significance. The ending may also cause some uncertainty. I took the nightmares as a way to show that sometimes the reality of life's disappointments and not achieving the American Dream are far worse than the horrors in one's dreams, and the loud noises to represent the outside factors that are never within our control but impact our daily lives in sudden and uncertain ways. I also interpreted the ending as Karam's way of showing how we are able to face our fears in an attempt to overcome our personal setbacks and, in a way, find our way to the light out of the darkness. But, I'm not sure if I have any of those correct.
The national tour cast is excellent and presents a realistically cohesive family unit. Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed, as Erik and Deirdre, portray both a deep sense of dedication to each other and to their children along with the criticisms and judgmental comments that anyone who is either a parent or child can relate to. As their daughters, Daisy Eagan and Therese Plaehn instill Brigid and Aimee with rich nuance and multiple layers that easily show us how, like their parents, they also struggle with life's shortcomings. Luis Vega does a good job as Richard, who is often put in the middle of the family confrontations, and Lauren Klein, who says very little as Momo and who played this part in the Broadway production, is stunning as the ailing grandmother suffering with Alzheimer's and dementia.
Joe Mantello's direction beautifully balances the humor and drama of the play, and his cast all work seamlessly together as an ensemble and instill their parts with such a rich chemistry that you'd almost think they were a real family. David Zinn's Tony Award winning, two-level, four-room set creates an almost dollhouse effect as we watch the action unfold simultaneously on both levels. Justin Townsend's Tony-nominated lighting design and the superb sound design by Fitz Patton perfectly set the tone and mood of the piece with some chilling effects in the final moments.
Holiday get togethers can sometimes bring out the worst in people and, while Stephen Karam's The Humans does show a few moments of ugliness that happen at the Blake family's Thanksgiving, it is also a thought-provoking study of one family at various stages of crisis that will most likely spark conversation, debate and analysis. It also beautifully shows the ways people cope with reality and how they navigate through the disappointments of life. You will most likely also see yourself, or people you know, in the characters Karam has crafted and the obstacles and setbacks they face.
The Humans, through June 3rd, 2018, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, in Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.thehumansonbroadway.com.
Written by Stephen Karam