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BWW Review: THE HUMANS at the Orpheum Theatre

BWW Review: THE HUMANS at the Orpheum Theatre It wasn't until I had time to read the program when I returned home that I realized that Richard Thomas (Erik Blake) was playing the father in Tony Award-winning THE HUMANS at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theatre this week. For readers of a certain age, this will possibly ring a bell. Thomas played John-Boy Walton on the long-time TV series, "The Waltons," for many of my growing up years. Pre-Netflix and hundreds of channels, this show was a staple for many Americans in the 1970s.

The Waltons didn't reflect the country at that time but instead a depression-era family living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Thomas' character was the eldest son who was itching to break out in the world. Now, he plays a very different family member in a modern-day, post-9/11 family, as patriarch Erik Blake. The show begins with silence and lights slowly up on a two-level Chinatown apartment in New York City. Thomas carries in some grocery bags and stands still and silent for an uncomfortable amount of time.

The rest of his clan finally burst into the scene and from there, the first hour or more of the show is a non-stop family Thanksgiving dinner with lots of chatter, witty repartee and exposition. We learn a lot about this Scranton, Pennsylvania family: parents Erik and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) and "Momo" (grandma, played by Lauren Klein) traveled to the city in a snowstorm to have a make-shift dinner with daughters Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and Aimee (Therese Plaehn) and Brigid's boyfriend and now roommate Richard (Luis Vega) in their roomy, narrow and empty apartment, complete with all kinds of noises of NYC multi-level living contributed by unseen neighbors.

While much of the conversation is funny -- the full house at the Orpheum laughed out loud on a regular basis -- there's a lot under the surface and through playwright Stephen Karam's thoughtful script, we learn about various family member's ailments, unemployment, underemployment and romantic histories. Throughout, while not the same as my own family, I kept thinking that this could be my family. This cast of characters talking about normal things at a normal family event in an abnormal space for it was just that -- normal. It could've been any member of the audience's family having that dinner on a card table and chairs with red Solo cups of wine.

The play takes a turn near the end, however. The family's skeletons are revealed and the show ends with yet another uncomfortable, long silence that left me confused as the curtain call came. Thinking on it a while, however, this show had many currents under the surface and thoughts keep popping up about what was said and unsaid in this heavy dialogued show. My companion for the night and I talked about it and she observed something that I had not thought about but made so much sense -- director Joe Mantello's use of light and dark throughout the show said a lot of things. It started out in the darkness with lights bursting on with the family's activity in the home but as things progressed, the lights kept going out until near the end when the show was nearly in complete darkness again.

The Blake family, for as close and loving as they were, had a lot of shared story but were keeping a lot from one another. The darkness each of them held inside, hidden from their close-knit family kept popping up till a family secret is revealed that brings them all into that darkness and silence at the end. Clever friend I was with. I also realized that throughout the 90 minute show, the members of the family kept dropping and spilling things, and having to clean them up. Another Mantello device to show this family, as much as they seem to share and as much as they seem fine on the surface, are making messes and cleaning up after one another over and over.

The Broadway production of THE HUMANS was heralded as "the Best Play of the Year" by multiple publications and the play by Karam was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. If you just look at the surface of the show, you might wonder why. If you ease into the nuances happening before your ears and eyes, this new American classic will likely speak to you about the world we are all living in today and how our modern lives, families and personal situations have changed. There was always angst and lives were harder in many ways during the era of "The Waltons" but the modern day challenges, which seem easier now, maybe are not easier, just different.

THE HUMANS plays through Feb. 18, 2018. More info and tickets are available at www.hennepintheatretrust.org.

Photo:

Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes


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From This Author Kristen Hirsch Montag