What do you do when structures fail? When you did everything right, you played by the rules, yet the safety you thought you’d shored up for the future disappears with a twist of fate? In The Humans, a Tony Award-winning comedy-drama by playwright Stephan Karam, characters wrestle to find peace and connection amidst the rumbles and groans of loss.
The play opens with the Blakes gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving in a Chinatown apartment with Mom and Dad, two college-educated children, plus a grandmother and boyfriend in tow. Their celebration of this uniquely American holiday, all about bounty and gratitude, provides a frame for examining the fragile complexities of family love and the fiction of the American Dream.
Young Brigid is a recent college grad, working as a bartender while applying for music jobs, and she offers a true millennial take on everything from student debt to superfoods. She shares the recently acquired apartment with her boyfriend, Richard, a much older grad student, who comes from money and has committed himself to becoming a social worker. Their furniture is stuck on a moving truck somewhere, so the meal is served at a folding table, a champagne toast swigged from Solo cups.
When Brigid’s Irish Catholic parents, Erik and Deirdre Blake, arrive from Scranton, Pennsylvania, they come bearing gifts. Erik gives his daughter a camping lamp and cans of tuna. He wants her to be prepared in case this part of Manhattan floods again. Deirdre offers Brigid a statue of the Virgin Mary for a more general type of protection. In addition to the stresses of low-paying jobs and the strains of longstanding wedlock, Erik and Deirdre are caring for Momo, the grandmother stricken with dementia.
Aimee, the older sister, is stressed out by her job as a Philadelphia lawyer, a recent breakup with her longtime girlfriend, and a painful flareup of ulcerative colitis. She’s a classic first-born child, bouncing between her Blackberry (the play is set in the early 2010s), the bathroom, and moderating bickers between her mother and younger sister.
The apartment itself is both backdrop and character. The top tier of the place is a ground floor room, its lone window bracketed by bars. The bottom is windowless, a basement that groans with the weight of the building. An upstairs neighbor thumps and bangs. Lights flicker and fail, one by one, throughout the course of the show.
The ominous setting gives the play a vaguely catastrophic feeling. Despite Brigid’s insistence that the place is palatial for the price (and, to be fair, she’s probably right), you aren’t surprised that Erik insists she’d have a much better life in Scranton.
A specter of fear haunts all the Blakes, originating from the failure of systems and people designed to protect them: pension plans, marriage, teachers, partners, the human body itself. To combat it, they turn to rituals—the songs they sing every holiday, the prayers before meals, being together and loving each other despite the small cruelties.
Live Arts’ production is directed by Francine Smith, who rose to a significant challenge. She not only orchestrates the subtle frictions of people managing secrets and sympathies, she does it across two floors, overlapping dialogue, and a script that requires unspoken communication and comedic timing.
The cast is excellent across the board. In a show where success depends so heavily on the humanity and authenticity of its actors, I was fully engaged throughout the two-hour runtime. Larry Goldstein plays Erik with an impeccable sense of that dad’s-got-it-all-figured-out distance, keeping things mellow and grounded and acting the part of provider until he just can’t pretend any more. Geri Schirmer is funny and real as Deirdre, bruised by the love she offers her daughters in turns both smothering, stoic, and outspoken.
As Momo, Meg Hoover makes it easy for us to believe her brain is crumbling; it’s no small feat to play in that liminal space, but she does it well. Lena Malcolm, as Aimee, gives us real pain with enough big sister chutzpah to bring back the laughs. Madeline Walker delivers a Brigid who is everything you’d expect—overly sensitive to her parents and wounded by small slights. Johnny Butcher rounds out the ensemble as Richard, who brings equal doses of sincerity and humor, acting as the palate cleanser and awkward-silence-filler that boyfriends typically play during the holidays.
The two-tiered set design creates a physical container that lives and moans around the family in action. Kudos to Gwyn Gilliam and the entire production team for using lighting, sound, and props to make this human experience feel real.
In Vulture, Jesse Green described The Humans as “the most, well, human play I’ve ever seen.” Live Arts’ production does an admirable job bringing that humanity to life. We see ourselves in its people, so flawed and familiar. Nothing distracts us from the discomfort of humans pretending not to struggle. But hope arrives alongside the pain. Forgiveness knocks on the door of betrayal. Being human is the thing that hurts, but it also sets us free.