BWW Review: A Sublime Cast Shines in Tony Award Winning Play, THE HUMANS, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
There was a time when it took actual, physical monsters and bogey-men to scare us stiff. Sure, two of our most enduring fiends, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, were metaphors for our societal anxieties, but their threatening, literal, physical presence was what terrified audiences.
In Stephen Karam's fast-paced, skillfully wrought horror/drama, The Humans, Frankenstein's monster is replaced with what truly terrifies Americans in 2018--not having enough money for retirement! Ok. So, that might sound silly, but I assure you, it sent a chill down my spine.
Opening at the recently renovated Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati on Wednesday night (Jan. 24th), The Humans starts out like any other family drama. The blue-collar Blake family from Scranton, PA, gets together for a holiday meal in youngest daughter Brigid's NYC apartment. They argue, they forgive, they love, they hate, and forgive again. If the play were just a family drama, it would be a very good one. Karam has filled his play with humor, quirks, shocking revelations, and incredible detail. The characters spill more and more secrets about themselves and each other at just the right times with superbly credible dialogue.
But, The Humans is not any other family drama. It's different--even though Karam's Blake family is satisfyingly familiar, almost cliché. Brigid (Becca Howell) is a spoiled brat, the baby, and everyone's favorite, who shatters at the slightest criticism, but who can dish it out with no problems. Mother, Deirdre (an utterly convincing Christine Dye), eats her feelings, sucking ranch dip off of carrot sticks as she declares she's on Weight Watchers. Of course, she nags her daughters about marriage and going to church. She cares in all the wrong ways, is eternally embarrassing, simultaneously cloying and distant, predictable and mysterious--a walking contradiction. (We're so hard on our poor mothers.) Sister, Aimee, played by an engaging Jennifer Joplin, is the successful, down-to-earth older sibling who puts out the fires. Erik (Tony Campisi), is the hardworking and tired patriarch, distracting himself with football and refusing to share too much about his worries, preferring to put on a brave face. Campisi deftly builds Erik's arc as the character's increasing intoxication chips away at his restraint.
But, something throughout feels a little off; there is a tension building that seems out of the characters' control. Strange sounds emanate, lights malfunction, and, finally, something menacing manifests out of the multitude of fears Karam's family brings into young Brigid's new apartment in Chinatown. No matter how they try to keep these fears at bay with blessings, rituals, toasts, icons, and care packages, the fear just keeps flowing, eventually flooding the basement space just like Sandy flooded it in 2016 (which Erik is terrified will happen again). And eventually, just as the character Richard (played by an amiable Jeff Groh) says when describing his favorite childhood comics, the humans become the monsters, polluting the apartment with their misery. This is what makes Karam's play so brilliant: the Blakes create an actual poltergeist with their fear instead of the other way around.
Erik's elderly mother, Momo (Dale Hodges), is a novel addition to Karam's familiar family. She is an invalid, wheeled around in a wheelchair, who has moments where she is tragic, moments when she is hilarious, moments where she disappears, and moments when she is terrifying. She barely speaks and when she does it is usually gibberish, but her character adds so much to Karam's specific style of horror that she is indispensable. As Momo, the terrific Dale Hodges breaks your heart with a reedy and vulnerable voice, frail posture, and eyes that, when they are not closed, are looking inward instead of out. We are told that Momo is having a particularly bad day, but why? Perhaps, in her fragile condition, she is too tuned in to the ether that is becoming saturated with the family's neuroses.
Karam is a master at showing that a family has the power to simultaneously bolster you and depress the hell out of you. I don't think a single character ends up better off as a result of the holiday gathering. If anything, the individual parts are more scattered, fragile, and wounded. But, somehow, in the very end, you feel that the Blake family as a whole has grown stronger.
The sublime cast and spot-on design make Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's production of The Humans a must-see. The show runs through February 17th.
For tickets and more information go here: https://www.ensemblecincinnati.org/
Photo by Ryan Kurtz