Thursday, June 7, 2018

"The Humans"

The Humans
Stephen Karam

Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan & Luis Vega
A play where sound, light, and set play starring roles along with a stellar cast and a hilarious and haunting script, Stephen Karam’s The Humans arrives in San Francisco as a most welcome and anticipated part of SHN’s current Broadway season.  Winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play (and 2016 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The Humans is a slice-of-life of one family’s Thanksgiving dinner during which spoonful heaps of mounting disappointments, personal fears, and unshared news are served along with the welcome sides of sweet memories, silly traditions, and deep love of core family.  Others’ hot buttons are ready targets to push; emotions run roller-coaster routes; and something ominous lurks as lights flicker off one-by-one and loud thuds and bumps interrupt without warning.  And through it all, we learn that this family named Blake are just as human as the rest of us, with many of the same quirks, hopes, let-downs, and moments of sheer fright that any and all of us sometimes experience.

Erik and Deirdre Blake have arrived from their home in Scranton at the Manhattan apartment recently occupied by their daughter, Brigid and her boyfriend, Richard – a two-level, rather run-down affair in Chinatown within a few blocks of 9/11’s Ground Zero and smack-dab in the center of an area of recent, repeated flooding.  With the parents have come their other daughter, Aimee, a lawyer, and Erik’s aged mom in wheel chair (“Momo”), wrapped in a Philadelphia Eagles blanket and acting rather comatose due to her advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  As the guests arrive, final preparations are underway for Thanksgiving dinner to be held on card tables and with plastic ware, since the movers did not deliver on time. 

Probably not unlike many parents entering for the first time their kids’ first homes, Erik and Deirdre immediately let their opinions of the new abode be known with a slew of skeptical comments somewhat cushioned by well-intentioned hugs and smiles. 
- Deirdre: “I wish you had more of a view.”  (Brigid: “It’s an internal courtyard.”) 
- Erik, peering at paint-peeling walls with a look of mild shock:  “I think if you moved to Philadelphia, your quality of life would go up.”  - Deirdre:  “Your bathroom does not have a window.  Love you.  Just saying.”

As the family moves beyond those often awkward first few moments when a holiday reunion begins not quite as one hoped but almost always as one figured it would, conversations spring forth in twos, threes, and then altogether, only to repeat old and new groupings on the two levels of the apartment throughout the visit.  Some topics are continuations of years-long back-and-forths: “I know you don’t believe, but she’s appearing everywhere ... Just put it in a drawer somewhere” (Deirdre to Brigid upon presenting her a Virgin Mary).  Some are that sudden, freeze-moment announcement that just blurts out: “I am no longer on the partner track” (Aimee to her stunned family).  Some are yet another attempt to change a family member’s annoying habit: “You don’t have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself” (Brigid to her mom, with the ‘her’ being sister Aimee).  And some are just downright weird and a bit spooky, like Erik’s sharing a recurring dream of a woman with no facial features inviting him to follow her into a lighted tunnel. 

In between, there is heartfelt laughter, deep-felt resentment, touching moments of understanding, and knife-sharp insults all mixed into an evening building toward a climax of revelations that shake the family’s familiar foundation like an earthquake.  And, we get to laugh a lot ourselves – with them, at them, and even at ourselves for seeing reflections in this stage mirror of our own family.

Pamela Reed is Deirdre Blake, the mother to whom the playwright awards many of the funniest lines, especially in the first half of the ninety-minute play.  Deirdre is office manager in the same company where she has worked for forty years, earning a fraction of the young dudes now running it.  She is full of firmly held opinions that she does not hesitate to share (like her constant hints to Aimee and Richard about the merits of marriage).  Her advice and observations are delivered sometimes in a mother’s kindest, most soothing voice and sometimes pointed like an arrow aiming for a target well-known and oft-visited.  She struggles with failing knees but takes the steep, spiral, metal steps to the second floor’s bathroom like a soldier with no complaints.  The pained movements of her walking are probably only a fraction of the hurts she conceals inside as we come to learn of past and present travails.  The pride she holds for her family is in her eyes that look on them with grateful admiration even as she has just heard daughters making fun of her emails, making her in many ways an Every Mom to whom all of us can relate.

Richard Thomas is a father who is bombastic and blustery with his judgments and digs in one minute and who then melts in the next into an understanding dad with his arms enveloping a tearful daughter.  When Erik gets worked up and begins to boom forth his vocal pronouncements, the entire neck and cheek surfaces of Richard Thomas glow red.  He is a dad who has brought a survival kit of batteries, wind-up radio, and lantern (sure that this apartment is in a danger zone).  He is a career materials and equipment guy at St. Paul’s Catholic School whose own ability to help his wife, mother, and himself survive is in more question than the rest know – at least yet know.  Richard Thomas – who many in the audience remember and love as John Boy from TV’s The Waltons – is increasingly spell-bounding as the evening’s minutes continue to tick by, providing a final scene that will remain etched in many a memory.

Daisy Reed & Therese Plaehn
Daisy Eagan and Therese Plaehn each bring humor and heart as well as vulnerability and stoic strength into their respective roles as the sisters, Brigid and Aimee.  Both characters have career uncertainties stacking up on all sides around them with no real way emerging how to succeed in the way they had once hoped.  Aimee has serious physical issues (something played out in her many trips to the bathroom, often with funny side comments) and suffers still from a break-up with a girlfriend who has already found her next partner.  Brigid has a fiery streak that can flare in an instant (especially ignited when around her mom) but also is the uniting force that molds this group into a feeling of family, making sure the songs and the traditions of the family continue here in her new home (like smashing a candy pig in a poke while recounting a personal blessing).  The external spunk and determination of Brigid and the internal fragility yet resilience of Aimee are the hallmarks of two outstanding performances by these fine actors.

Helping round out the remarkable ensemble is the amiable, good-natured Richard Saad, a product of a household of an economic higher level than the Blakes; and yet Luis Vega never lets his Richard act or say anything– at least on purpose – that is meant to place himself on a higher rung than they.  He is mostly a quiet observer of the goings-on of this, his first Blake Family holiday dinner.  When he does try to chime in several times to share his dream of falling into an ice cream cone made of grass and becoming a baby, he is met with as many ‘Huh?’s’ from the puzzled Blakes as from us in the amused audience.

The sleeping volcano of the gathering is Fiona Blake, the grandmother/mother who mostly sits in her wheelchair or lies on the couch --  sometimes mumbling, often slobbering, usually looking downward with no expression.  But when she does erupt, the performance of Lauren Klein hits home for anyone who has ever had a relative with a debilitating disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.  And when she speaks through an email four years old, one of the play’s most meaningful moments occurs that reminds many of us of the loving legacies of others in our own families who have past before us.

Joe Mantello masterfully directs this talented ensemble, often making great use of David Zinn’s two-level, multiple-room set in order to have parallel conversations mirror each other in ways to enhance the humor or the poignancy of each or to draw subtle attention to the contrasts of emotions between the two.  The set of David Zinn is so wonderfully realistic in its cut-away slice of the New York apartment that when there is a screaming ruckus about a rat in a corner, we can only think, “Of course ... What did you expect?”  The lighting of Justin Townsend is award-winning in design and effect, creating shadows on the second-floor ceiling that tell stories all by themselves and providing that stark and never quite sufficient lighting that a low-rent apartment always seems to have.  Big applause goes also to the sound design of Fitz Patton whose unexpected and periodic entrances of pounds, creaks, and strange noises all become a soundtrack of surprise and suspense with always a comic undertone. 

The many accolades that have been awarded to Stephen Karam’s The Humans – including recently being named by The New York Times as one of the best 25 plays in the past 25 years – gain full credibility after spending a Thanksgiving with the Blakes at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre.  Look for The Humans to make its way to regional stages at all levels in the years and generations to come. 

Rating: 5 E

The Humans continues through June 17, 2018 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit:  Julieta Cervantes

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