The cast of the national tour of The Humans: Richard Thomas, Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan, Luis Vega, and Therese Plaehn. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, all dysfunctional families are not alike. This is a good thing, because there are an awful lot of American dramas that seem to revolve around the reunions at holidays or funerals of dysfunctional white American families. (This seems to have become especially popular in the last two decades.) Stephen Karam’s Tony Award winning play The Humans is one of the best of this genre.
The relevant sub-genre here is the holiday gathering. The occasion? The Blake family’s “first official Chinatown Thanksgiving”. The Blakes comprise three generations of a loving, Irish-American, working-class family from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre Blake (Pamela Reed) are working-class stiffs nearing retirement age. Eric’s elderly mother, Momo (Lauren Klein), is mobility impaired and with Alzheimer’s, so the threesome has goes to their younger daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan)’s “new” apartment in lower Manhattan. Brigid’s apartment is in fact very old, pre-war, rickety, un-renovated…and shared with her boyfriend, Richard (Luis Vega). The family is completed by older sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a lawyer recovering from a painful breakup, who joins them from Philadelphia. Over the course of hors d’oeuvres and dinner, they share their good and not-so-good news.
Karam’s dialogue is dazzling and almost naturalist in its style (critic Christopher Isherwood justifiably calls it: “documentary”). The script strongly captures the patterns and rhythms of the everyday dialogue of “ordinary” Americans. Watching the play is reminiscent of eavesdropping on the folks in the next booth at a family-style restaurant off I-94, en route to Chicago. It captures the disparate modes and rhythms: the intimacy, the shorthand, the repetition, and of course the talking over each other.
The Humans follows the usual narrative line of this form. First there is great gaiety, the exchange of complements, and the offering of sketchy, usually cheery, updates. Then there is the ritual of reminiscences and humorous thrice-told anecdotes. After food and a few too many drinks, the happy facades start to break down, and buried regrets and longings come to the surface. Someone blurts out something they didn’t mean to share. After questions and probing, like clockwork, out come the skeletons, or maybe, as in The Humans, just the bad news and the confessions.
That The Humans follows this formula does not make it any less engaging or entertaining. This is a very good, very funny, and often compelling play about the normal challenges and missteps of middle class Americans who find themselves downwardly mobile in the 21st century. I like this drama better than August: Osage County for several reasons. First, the Blakes are all really likable people. Second, because they all really not only love but actually like one another, they come across as authentically enjoying each another’s company. While all of them are flawed, none of them are, well, evil. (Plenty enough plays in this genre follow the “bad mother screwed us all up”.)
To the contrary, Pamela Reed’s Mom (Deirdre) is funny and endearing – and the most sympathetic character in the play. Yes, she’s a little kooky and a bit intrusive and she could probably use more tact – she bestows the unmarried hosts with a statue of the Virgin Mary and soon starts extolling the virtues of marriage – but she’s also decent and courageous. She finds strength in her community service work and in her faith and, well, she’s a love bug. Reed brings just the right balance of neediness and dignity to the role.
Both Erik and Dierdre are exhausted from having toiled away for the past 30 years in tedious, low-status jobs, while trying to put a few pennies away for retirement. Dierdre has the same low-paying job she had when she started: office manager. She takes it in stride that her two new hotshot bosses are 35 years younger than her and can’t figure out where their noses are, much less how to fill out a requisition form. Erik has spent the same 30 years running maintenance for a private Catholic high school. They both have worked hard, done the right things, raised two children to responsible adulthood, and been good to their parents. They were frugal, and should have been further along by now.
In one of the play’s candid exchanges, Erik tells Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Rich, “Save your money now…it never ends: mortgage, car payments, Internet… our dishwasher just gave out.” He follows up with one of the killer one-line punches that is the playwright’s specialty: “Don’tcha think it should cost less to be alive?”
There is more than a hint of Stoic sadness in the play. To be honest, I can only take so much of this in a family drama patriarch before getting bored or frustrated (I am not sure if that is due to too much time at dysfunctional family drama or too much time in Minnesota). That I didn’t get bored this time I attribute to Richard Thomas’s restrained, but artful and richly poetic performance as Rick.
I saw Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney in the Broadway production of The Humans. They gave performances that were stunningly honest, perhaps too honest. I have never understood why people reserve the highest awards for actors who can create the illusion that they are not acting. Houdyshell and Birney were so honest and real and natural that you spent the whole time marveling at how honest and real and natural their acting was. It was like watching a magic show, each trick more spectacular than the one before. It took you out of the play. Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed give us fewer fireworks, but they do a far better job of convincing me that they are a couple who have spent 40 years together and are still genuinely in love. It serves the play better, putting the story first.
It is not only Erik and Diedre who have problems. Both of the Blake daughters have college degrees and Aimee is a lawyer, but that doesn’t spare them from having job difficulties, especially since Brigid is working as a bartender while she tries to get her career as composer off the ground. When she complains about getting a lukewarm recommendation letter from her music professor, Erik cuts her short – in this family, complaining is deemed self-indulgent, a character flaw.
It turns out that even Aimee, the most accomplished member of the family, has career issues. Life events compounded by job troubles meet a perfect storm of other things crashing down. This gives Aimee the most moving moment in the play: an achingly sad and wrenching (and masterfully constructed) monologue that Therese Plaehn performs to perfection. It’s such a powerful embodiment of desperation that it is almost painful to watch. It’s moments like this, when we see their world dissolve, that we connect on the most human level with these characters.
The Humans plays through February 18 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.