REVIEW: The Humans a chilling family affair
American playwright Stephen Karam wanted to write a horror story. Given the unsettling atmosphere of the run-down New York tenement where he sets his new play, The Humans, at the Citadel Theatre until Jan. 27 for the Canadian premiere, and the sudden unexplained noise that rocks the apartment, the lights that suddenly go out and other things that go whirr in the night, there is an increasing feeling of dread.
But the playwright is not interested in the usual quick scares and psychic paraphernalia of your basic movie horror potboiler. The short (95 minutes) real-time play delves into the real fears of our everyday anxiety-ridden contemporary lives: lost loves, empty jobs, depression, aging, bodies that betray us, money problems, the lack of control we have over our own lives, a changing economy and the fear that our children are being denied access to the good life we enjoyed. And finally, our ever-present existential fear of the darkness that lies just ahead of us.
The play is fresh, uncompromising, unsentimental and chilling. The Humans found a huge audience, was the object of a lot of love from the critics (it won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play), and is the successor to such worthy serious dramatic turns as Other Desert Cities, Clybourne Park, God of Carnage and August, Osage County – to mention only those that have played the Citadel in recent years.
The Humans is depressing, but in the way real life is sometimes depressing. It is also very funny – in fact there is a stream of humour that runs throughout the entire evening that leavens the dark guarded secrets that it will reveal.
After a sleepless night, Erik Blake (Ric Reid) has brought his lower income blue collar family from their home in Pennsylvania for a Thanksgiving dinner to his daughter, Brigid’s (Sara Farb), new apartment in NYC which she shares with her boyfriend, Richard (Richard Lee). It’s a (very) modest double-level duplex tenement in Chinatown. Present are Eric’s wife, Deirdre (Laurie Paton), his daughter, Aimee (Alana Hawley Purvis), who lives outside the city and Momo (Maralyn Ryan) who is deeply lost in Alzheimer’s. The parents, Catholic and tradition minded, are well into middle age and unhappy that their girls have left home and abandoned their religion.
This is a family in crisis and, as supper winds down, tensions reach a boiling point.
Reid’s solid and subtle portrait of the patriarch is given to quick tempers but his secret is the most unexpected and intense of them all. Paton’s Deirdre has a great sense of humour and is the droll family wit. Farb’s Brigid is fragile and secretive. She has broken away from the family and feels resented. Purvis’ Aimee is a hapless lawyer who has lost her job through protracted illness and is carrying a torch for a lost love but still manages to reach out to the others with compassion and high spirits. Ryan’s Momo sets the direction of the evening with her demented mumble, “It will never go back.” This fine actress is given a moment at the end of the play when she melts down with highly impressive enthusiasm. The entire cast delivers vulnerable and truthful performances, often giving us the feeling that we are eavesdropping. The secrets revealed will be painful but this is not Virginia Woolf. These are not mean people. They accept and abide.
The Citadel has wisely chosen Jackie Maxwell as director. Maxwell, as well as her 14 seasons as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, has had a long career exploring the same kind of fragile shifts, ranging from domestic comedy to harrowing strife, so much on display here. Each of the characters is sharply drawn and richly detailed as Maxwell skillfully steers them through turbulent emotional waters while maintaining their innate likeability and internal grit. She’s immeasurably helped here by Karam’s spare, razor sharp dialogue as delivered by her superb cast.
Judith Bowden’s low-rent two-story set is the perfect setting for the modern gothic goings on. The two levels give the playwright the ability to move characters away from each other, to provide the privacy to intensify their (and our own) perceptions of the family dynamic.
The Humans says something about the family at this moment. The play ends on the hopeful note that human connection will help the characters navigate an uncertain future and that families will inevitably find some way to keep going.