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PREVIEW: The Humans Captures a Vanishing Middle Class (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck in the Broadway tour of The Humans by Stephen Karam. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

In the last several years, I have read and heard a growing chorus of calls for the American theatre to reflect and represent more of the turmoil roiling American society. As U.S. society has grown increasingly polarized – something swept into prominence amidst Obama’s 2008 election campaign and the rancor it exposed – the clamoring has grown louder and more fervent. One of their culminations is a call for theatre as a discipline and an art form to respond to the 2016 election and all that went with it. One such response is The Humans, which comes to the Orpheum Theatre on February 13.

Untangling the United States’ political-social mess is a lot to ask of any show, but The Humans goes to bat anyway with some of the issues facing middle-class Americans. In this 2014 play by Stephen Karam, the characters don’t wrestle with glamorous marriage proposals from millionaires and legions of paparazzi. Instead, they confront very real and unfortunately common problems like losing your job to a health crisis, crippling student debt, and workforce obsolescence. Don’t worry: what seems bad becomes inevitably worse before the play’s end.

“A profoundly affecting drama that sketches the psychological and emotional contours of an average American family.”
––2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Committee

Lest you think that this play is a complete downer, Karam’s script is sown with bursts of levity that heighten the drama. The up-down combination has been a hit with audiences from the beginning. While many plays linger for years before revisions and momentum propel them into the spotlight, but The Humans has practically steamrolled its way to the present Broadway national tour. The play premiered by the American Theater Company in Chicago in November 2014, with a Roundabout Theatre Company production opening officially Off-Broadway in October 2015 – less than a year later.

Roundabout’s run was a strong success, extending into January 2016 – quite long for an Off-Broadway play – and the show transferred to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre the following month. This run exceeded both expectations and the capacity of the venue, which had long-scheduled renovations on the calendar for August 2016. With ticket sales still strong, the producers simply transferred it to another theatre, the Schoenfield – a theatre with almost double the seating capacity. This second transfer barely put a dent in demand: The Humans ran for five more months in its final New York City home, rounding out the season with four Tony Award wins, including the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play. (The play was also a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, losing out to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.)

Writing in February 2016, the New York Times‘ Charles Isherwood called The Humans “The finest new play of the Broadway season so far — by a long shot.” The Pulitzer Prize Committee called it “A profoundly affecting drama that sketches the psychological and emotional contours of an average American family.” This stage family lives in a New York bereft of the glamour of NYC TV apartments and none of the grandeur of your stereotypical stage family. Windowless basements, noise pollution, yawning economic insecurity, and more form the backdrop as three generations of the family gather for that supposed artifact of happiness and stability: the Thanksgiving dinner.

Plays that speak to deep-rooted problems often appear prescient in anticipating events. Either way, Karam’s The Humans is immensely timely and resonant with our contemporary anxieties.

Reed Birney, Sarah Steele, Jayne Houdyshell, and Arian Moayed in the Broadway tour of The Humans. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

The Humans opens February 13 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine