BWW Review: THE HUMANS ~ A Family's Sound And Fury, Signifying Everything
Stephen Karam's THE HUMANS won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Competing against plays like Eclipsed, The Father, and King Charles III, it's perhaps understandable that a work so reflective of the dynamics and pressures of a prototypical middle class American family might resonate with unique relevance to the times and thus grab the medallion.
In this regard, Karam pivots off and touches upon the six basic fears (as defined by Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich) "with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another...the fear of poverty; the fear of criticism; the fear of ill health; the fear of loss of love; the fear of old age; the fear of death.
For all its hits, however, there are some critical misses ~ especially, an ending that is as confusing as it is disappointing.
In this one act play about a revelatory Thanksgiving get-together, Karam's characters fuss and fume about parental relationships, health care, Alzheimer's, career choices, job security, love affairs, dreams, the meaning of life....and so it goes. It's the whole megillah of America in a lower Manhattan microcosm...almost the whole, save for a startling confession that will turn the evening to a veil of darkness.
Keeping it real, Karam creates scenes that are chaotic and noisy with conversations and stage business ~ flowing between two floors separated by a spiral staircase ~ that overlap and that feel and sound like...well, what a lot of families really feel and sound like. Undeniably masterful writing that evokes the sounds and argot of the working class.
Yet, in this fast-paced ninety minutes of storming behavior, the characters are like six bullet trains traveling on parallel tracks. Each is carrying a load of baggage but without ample time to slow down and unpack it, to share it, to relieve the burden. Each offers the other a glimpse of their contents only so long until some distraction pulls the sharers apart. Again, THE HUMANS mirrors life in a culture where lives are all too often disconnected by time and distance.
This is the dynamic of THE HUMANS that, in the National Tour (now at ASU Gammage in Tempe through June 3rd) is played out by a star-studded cast that includes Richard Thomas (The Waltons, The Americans), Daisy Egan (The Secret Garden), Therese Plaehn (The Heidi Chronicles), Lauren Klein (Lost in Yonkers), and Luis Vega, and features a dazzling performance by Pamela Reed (Getting Out).
When the Blakes, Erik (Thomas) and Deirdre (Reed), convene at the Chinatown apartment of their daughter Brigid (Egan) and her boyfriend Richard (Vega), it's clear enough from the onset that dad has something very important to share.
By the time he opens up, we've witnessed the effects of Alzheimer's on grandmother Momo (Klein), and Aimee (Plaehn) has revealed her broken heart and her fear of an unpcoming colectomy.
When he does, his reveal feels overdue and anticlimactic. Erik's admission to his daughters that he cheated on Deirdre and that he's lost his job is greeted with predictable dismay. But, no time is allowed to digest the message or to process the betrayal. Brigid and Aimee leave abruptly.
And Erik is left alone, suddenly, to navigate the darkness. In the last several minutes of the play, Karam might have intended some profound symbolism in Erik's fumbling from blackness into the light, escaping his dreams of the monsters that go bump in the night. The effect, however, undoes what to this point has been a play infused with humanity, wit, and emotion. It ends in an unsettling limbo.
Nevertheless, THE HUMANS is, at its heart, filled with a family's sound and fury, signifying everything that complicates their lives, and elevated by a collection of solid performances.
THE HUMANS runs through June 3rd at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ.
Photo credit to Julieta Cervantes