BWW Review: THE HUMANS: 2016 Best Play Tour at Boch Shubert Center
Written by Stephen Karam, Directed by Joe Mantello; Scenic Design, David Zinn; Costume Design, Sarah Laux; Lighting Design, Justin Townsend; Sound Design, Fitz Patton; Production Stage Manager, Brian J. L'Ecuyer
Performances through March 25 at Boch Center, Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Tickets @ Telecharge 866-280-7626 or www.bochcenter.org
The National Tour of the 2016 Tony Award-winning play The Humans makes its Boston debut at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre. Playwright Stephen Karam, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is well-known to local theater audiences from his dark comedy Sons of the Prophet, which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2011, and an earlier work, Speech and Debate, which had its Boston premiere in 2009 at the Lyric Stage Company. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Karam has a knack for capturing the experiences of working- and middle-class families and creating authentic characters who embody the nature of grappling with the life issues shared by this cohort. With humor and heart, The Humans offers an in-depth look at the foibles and fears of the members of one family and how they help each other survive in an increasingly unforgiving world.
Karam chooses to have The Humans take place during the course of Thanksgiving dinner, establishing that the Blakes are a close family who gather for holidays, as well as the notion that they have and express gratitude, despite the many challenges they face. Younger daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her somewhat older boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) have recently moved in together in a shabby, but spacious duplex apartment (effective scenic design by David Zinn) in New York City's Chinatown. They are hosting her parents, Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) and paternal grandmother "Momo" (Lauren Klein) from Scranton, and big sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn) has traveled in from Philadelphia. From the get-go, Dad critiques the apartment, while Mom pushes for Brigid to get married and be a practicing Catholic. Richard is busily preparing the meal, and trying to bond with the parents, while Brigid does a fair amount of eye-rolling and sniping at her folks.
Aimee is having a rough year as she suffers from ulcerative colitis, recently broke up with her long-term lesbian lover, and just found out that her law firm no longer considers her to be partner material. Still, she has been more successful than her sister, who works a couple of dead end part-time jobs while trying to get an internship to pursue her passion in musical composition. Saddled with tremendous college debt, riddled with self-doubt, and unable to afford therapy, Brigid is struggling to keep it together, but feels grounded with Richard, a social work student with a period of depression in his past and a trust fund in his future. Adding to the chaos is Momo's frequent gibberish chatter as she descends into the unpredictable depths of Alzheimer's. Erik and Deirdre, both 60-ish, are part of the sandwich generation, financially squeezed by having to care for Momo and unable to retire or help their kids. As Erik asks Richard, "...don'tcha think it should cost less to be alive?"
In addition to creating characters who are complex and three-dimensional, Karam gives them dialogue that feels true to life, peppered with wisecracks and organic humor arising out of the situation and relationships, even when it delves into serious or uncomfortable topics. Dad drinks a bit too much and has a bad back, Mom "eats" her feelings, and the shadow of September 11th looms over the dreary lower Manhattan apartment. Each member of the family has either already sustained a loss - of a job, a relationship, trust, or the promise of future prospects - or lives in fear of an anticipated loss. Karam generates an aura of dread, exacerbated by a smattering of unidentifiable loud thudding noises (sound design by Fitz Patton) emanating from somewhere in Brigid's building. They are annoying to Erik, at first, but grow to terrifying proportions when the apartment is plunged into darkness (lighting design by Justin Townsend). In my theatergoing experience, it is reminiscent of the anxiety dredged up in Wait Until Dark, albeit with a much more abstract (read: psychological) threat in the offing.
Across the board, the performances are terrific, both individually and collectively, as the ensemble easily convinces us that they are a family, with all of the accompanying uplift and down drag that connotes. Thomas gets inside every nook and cranny of the patriarch, a man who is overmatched by his responsibilities as the head of the family and the caretaker of his mother. He wears his physical and emotional pain in his body language and on his face throughout the play, building to a compelling, visceral concluding scene. He and Reed share a relationship that can be prickly, but features a telepathy forged over the long years of marriage. She gives a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of a good woman with a strong faith that is sometimes her only life raft when she finds herself in over her head.
Plaehn and Eagan manage to convey both the closeness and the distance between the sisters, as well as their distinctly different personalities. Aimee's woes have bent, but not broken her, and Plaehn shows how she continues to rise up. Conversely, Eagan gives us a character who behaves as if the glass is half empty, constantly struggling to catch a break. Richard has a nice way of stepping into the fray without suffering too much collateral damage and Vega's portrayal reflects his equanimity. Although Momo's condition is concerning for the family, Klein provides an underlying tone of joy and comic relief.
Director Joe Mantello, who received a 2016 Tony nomination for the Broadway production of The Humans, has to be like an air traffic controller as scenes occur simultaneously upstairs and downstairs on the two-tiered set and the characters frequently interrupt and talk over each other. As an audience member, it is sometimes necessary to focus in on one conversation at the expense of another, but that only adds to the authenticity of the large family experience. You can't pay attention to everything, offering a reminder that we don't always know what baggage someone is carrying around, even in our own family. Suffice to say, there is never a dull moment at this dinner and you'll give thanks for the humor, the heart, and even the things that go bump in the night.