Most plays are about people, which usually involves an exposition, conflict, climax, and conclusion flowing in a discernible arc. But when people are called “humans,” that’s a signal that we are being asked to step back and regard them a little differently.
Stephen Karam’s “The Humans’, the 2016 Tony winner for Best Play, puts the audience in the position of sympathetic zoo-watchers. The Blake family, brought to us in a slice of life on Thanksgiving Day, goes through the extended, improvised dance of ritual that everyone can recognize. Family relationships are layered with backstory, individual and communal. Emotional attachments ebb and flow from that great well of shared, unspoken history.
The setup is simple enough. Brigid (Madeline Walker) and her boyfriend, Rich, (Johnny Butcher) have recently moved into an apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. It’s two levels; the first floor is the basement and a winding staircase leads upstairs. The unseen Asian woman above them makes random loud thudding noises, and the bars on the windows are what every New Yorker expects. But it’s what they can afford.
It’s a long way from Scranton, Pa., Brigid’s hometown, but her parents, Erik and Deirdre (Larry Goldstein and Geri Schirmer) along with sister Aimee (Lena Malcolm) have come for Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve also brought along Erick’s mother, “Momo” (Meg Hoover), who has degenerated into capricious old age – long bouts of dementia-clouded reveries and sudden shout outs punctuate moments of faint clarity.
These are the humans we watch and follow and get to know. There’s no one central problem to solve, no one climactic revelation, though Erik’s comes close. We do get drawn into certain threads that evoke our sympathy.
Things aren’t going well for Aimee, whose girlfriend has just broken up with her, and there’s pathos in her escapes upstairs to place desperately friendly phone calls to “see how she’s doing.” A lawyer with a Philadelphia law firm, she knows she’s about to be laid off, a situation that just makes her ulcerative colitis more acute.
Brigid bartends to pay off student loans, but her ambition is composing. There’s a delicate precision between her and older sister, Aimee – two lives that are lived in utterly separate orbits but occasionally make contact with their shared childhood. Their exasperation over their mother’s frequent, random emails is a bonding point that sisters understand, and leads to the kind of rebuke you’d never hear anywhere else: “You don’t have to email us every time a lesbian kills herself!” And Deirdre is not exactly subtle about her approval of committed couples getting married. But the girls quietly worry about their mother’s back and knees and try to prevent unnecessary trips up the steep stairs.
Meanwhile, Rich busily makes Thanksgiving dinner, anxious – sometimes overanxious – to be liked and accepted. At 38, he’s studying to become a social worker. The fact that he’ll receive a trust fund at age 40 throws an odd shade over the conversation.
Erik and Deidre function in that solidly middle class landscape of office management and maintenance supervision, faithful worker bees at the same institutions for over thirty years. These are not people who have dealings with trust funds, and Erik’s response to the information is a blend of congratulation and envy. Erik had not expected to reach the other side of middle age with a mortgage and broken appliances – and an unhappy secret that he feels compelled to share with his daughters while insisting that everything will be fine.
Directed by Francine Smith, “The Humans” is a study of three generations of one family clinging to the patterns and rituals that sustain them. The daughters have long abandoned their religion, and so Deirdre brings Brigid a Virgin Mary statuette as a gift. They pray over dinner, holding hands, and even Momo launches into a perfectly memorized recital of lines that have been etched into her brain for nearly eighty years.
They bring out the “pig”, a family ceremony that involves passing the “pig” around, smacking it, and announcing what you are thankful for. They make lists about everything, as if in that simple, homely act, they can control what they have to do, to buy, to remember. These are the things that connect with the audience – the ways that families, with their intricate emotional inroads with one another and their peculiar, comforting habits, get through their lives, day by day.
An all volunteer theatre, Live Arts has amassed a dedicated crew of enthusiastic actors, designers, and builders. Gwyn Gilliam designed the two-story set, and Jackson Key’s lighting sustains the impression of an old city apartment where bulbs burn out too soon and there will no doubt be heating complaints to the landlord this winter.
By the time the Blakes are leaving, going off in their own directions, and Erik is left standing in the shadows, there is a residual, faint whiff of sadness underlying those familiar poignant rhythms of ordinary life.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Humans” by Stephen Karam
Where: Live Arts, 123 E Water St., Charlottesville, Va.
Call: (434) 977-4177 or visit livearts.org.
Playing through Feb. 16