Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critic Association member
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
“If you are so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?” Erik Blake, patriarch of a family gathering at his Millennial daughter’s New York apartment for Thanksgiving, asks her this question that, in a most direct way, seems to capture the reality of Western existence in the 21st Century, in Stephen Karam’s Tony Award winning The Humans. The traveling production, here for only two weeks, marks the first time this play has appeared on Chicago stages since it premiered at American Theatre Company in 2014, and it brings with it many of the original team from Broadway including director Joe Mantello to the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Although I couldn’t help thinking that the huge venue was not the right choice for this intimate play, which demands full investment in characters who are very far away from most of the audience, it is still a marvelous production, dolloping out both laughs and pathos in huge quantities.
The play takes place in real time over a 90-minute Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Brigid (Daisy Eagan), a still-young woman struggling to get her acting career going and making her money bartending, and her live-in boyfriend, 38-year-old trust funder-in-waiting Richard (Luis Vega). Because Richard’s trust fund doesn’t kick in until he is forty, they are living in a seedy duplex replete with obnoxiously loud, creepy noises, faulty lights, and “cockroaches as big as mice.” They love it for its space, but her parents, played by Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed, find it inordinately depressing. Rounding out the holiday gathering are Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Therese Plaehn) and their grandmother, “Momo” (Lauren Klein), a wheelchair-bound woman deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s. As with any holiday gathering, there are moments of joy and moments when it’s amazing someone doesn’t throw the turkey at someone else. And there are revelations.
Aimee comes to the gathering with baggage: she has recently broken up with a long-time girlfriend and lost her job with a NYC law firm due to all of the time she’s had to miss from (strike three) a debilitating ulcerative colitis that will soon require a colostomy. Plaehn’s performance is open and ingratiating; not a throughly morose downer, Aimee tries hard to fight through her pain—despite bouts of self-deprecation (“I’m a planet in this photo!”)—and enjoy the dinner. Sometimes she even succeeds…at least when she’s not rushing off to the bathroom. Plaehn plays her beautifully: she’s a mess, but she’s still a loving part of the family. Even in her pain, she is able to keep herself going through a sense of humor leaning to sarcasm: “Maybe life is about deciding whether you want to go through life unhappy alone or unhappy with somebody else.”
Erik is also unhappy, but his baggage is hidden. A lucky survivor of 9/11, he has lived a solid life as a teacher, but seeing the circumstances in which his daughter is living (in New York, too, which the Scranton native views as the pit of the universe), he finds fault with everything. He spends a great deal of time in the play sitting or standing to a side, his mind adrift. He’s clearly worried about finances (“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?”) but also troubled by sleepless nights brought on by nightmares about a faceless woman, a succubus that may destroy him. Thomas’ performance gives in to the distance: despite being in the middle of the conversation, Erik never quite seems to be a part of it.
Brigid and Richard—steadfastly refusing to get married despite many, many entreaties by her parents—are the most upbeat people here, and why not? He will come into money in a couple of years and she is working hard to revive a side-tracked career. And they have this new apartment as well. They are so deeply in love that they can simply overlook its multitudinous flaws, things that drive papa Erik crazy from the moment he steps inside. (She is really proud of the large window, for example; he only sees the ugliness of the alleyway outside and the fact that the only way he gets cell reception is to lean against it.) But Eagan and Vega keep their characters on an even keel, not giving in (as much as possible, anyway, in a family gathering) to all of the pointed remarks and trying to keep the day upbeat despite everything.
As Momo, Klein has an unusual task: her dialogue is, for the most part, a series of repeated mumbles, and her character’s disease keeps her inert for almost the entire proceeding. It would have been very easy to play this in a way that slips into caricature, but Klein’s performance is one of the most honest (and wrenching) portrayals of an old woman with Alzheimer’s you are likely to see. Her family are not the only ones in the theatre who want to cheer when she momentarily regains some of her faculties at one point, but it is fleeting. Karam pulls no punches when it comes to the disease, showing it in all of its debilitating, horrifying reality.
As with most family holiday gatherings, someone has to play peacemaker, and it often falls to Mom. Reed is wonderful as a Catholic woman who wants nothing more than for her children to be happy but has no control over the difficulties of their lives. Her nearly desperate desire for Brigid and Richard to marry and come back to the faith (she even brings them a Blessed Virgin as a housewarming gift) is a need for stability: she feels that when the world falls apart, faith and marriage can help save you. She’s seen ups and downs in her life and knows that down is worse.
“Wealth can ruin people,” she says. “So can poverty. I’d rather be ruined in a Four Seasons on the beach.”
Ultimately, what Reed shows us is a woman on the downside of life who lives with the constant reminder (in Momo) of how life comes to an end and who, though she at times appears oblivious to her daughters’ issues, nonetheless sees life for what it is; “Nothing in this life is worth getting worked up.”
The duplex apartment is itself a character in this piece. Designed by Tony Award-winner David Zinn, it is full of oddities from the illogical angles of some of the upstairs walls to those noises (courtesy of sound designer Fitz Patton) that are way too outlandish to be caused by the little Chinese woman upstairs, as both Brigid and Richard claim. The apartment’s near-emptiness, too, is haunting. The couple have not had furniture delivered yet, so all they have anywhere are a Lazy Boy and a makeshift dining area made up of card tables. The place is stark, an empty casing waiting to be filled but with darkness boiling within it, darkness that becomes literal when all of the lights fail. Brigid and Richard attribute this to the fact that they had old light bulbs, but each step of the failure is accompanied by more of the place’s odd loud noises, as if it just wants this gathering over.
Erik is ultimately left alone in the dark to contemplate his nightmares and the problems of his life, but what we have seen is 90 minutes (no intermission) of life as it is: the human condition. There is hope, there is disappointment, there is laughter, there is strife; The Humans is, in its essence, a play about how we live our lives, and Karam’s script illustrates it with both joyous and stark realism. Life is never a picnic, or even a Thanksgiving feast. It is always a travail to be human, and rarely has a play captured the human struggle better.