In The Humans, Stephen Karam suggests that America can be a heaven that, in a moment, might flip into hell.
The Humans by Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. Presented by Boch Center at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston, MA, through March 25.
By Robert Israel
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy once observed. But when Tolstoy’s insightful remark is applied to the modern American Blake family, gathered in a New York City apartment for Thanksgiving, it’s not either/or. In Stephen Karam’s long one-act, today’s families are forced to sip on a potent cocktail of both.
The Blakes—father Erik (Richard Thomas, of The Waltons fame) and his wife Dierdre (Pamela Reed)—have driven from Scranton, PA, to Manhattan with his mother, Fiona (Lauren Klein), who, mostly confined to a wheelchair, is having one of her “bad days” as she struggles with dementia. The family meal is being hosted by daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan), a bartender cum composer, who lives with her older boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), a forever-student, in their rattletrap duplex apartment. Older sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn), an unemployed lawyer who has recently lost her girlfriend in Philadelphia and is struggling with health issues, joins them. The feast is served on throwaway plastic plates.
Shortly after curtain, the Blakes link arms to join in a burst of happiness. Raising their plastic cups, they break into an a capella song. But underneath the notes of that sweet song sit dirges, as each over the course of the evening reveals how he or she is grappling with formidable issues of health, finances, and employment. Because they know and love one another, they soften that sadness with familiar banter, the kind that comes with shared histories. But on the other side of that bonhomie is plenty of exasperation and heartbreak. They’ve arrived at their stations in life without long-term support structures—there are no emotional or financial safety nets.
Such is life in America in the 21st century, where dreams of prosperity are increasingly elusive, where careers are as fragile as the plastic plates heaped high with Thanksgiving turkey and store-bought pie. Love and family is what’s left to provide solace and warmth in the face of harsh realities. Playwright Karam—known to Boston audiences for Sons of the Prophet, staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in 2011—serves up a tough vision of America today. The frazzled threads of our internecine lives are sometimes all we have—and that is often not enough.
As Erik, Richard Thomas gives a strong, understated performance of a man facing the end of his long career with chagrin as he comes to realize that his daughters cannot provide him with the generous comfort he provides to his own ailing mother. He is stretched thin, has worn a hole in his flimsy safety net, in part because he made a number of bad choices. Pamela Reed’s Brigid digs into her character’s fragility; she is a woman who, as a wife, mother, and caregiver, deserves a better reward. She has worked at her job for decades, only to be upstaged by younger managers who, she tells us, are now making more lucrative salaries. Reed’s performance carefully suggests the psychological despair whose character has been needlessly diminished by society. In a telling final scene, she places a religious statue on a darkened windowsill, an icon of righteousness she hopes will bring the luck that has evaded her—a gift to a daughter who also sorely needs it.
The set design by David Zinn deserves praise, a duplex apartment that is creepy and comes with all the trappings of boxed-in life in the Big Apple: bad wiring, noisy neighbors, and cockroaches. In Zinn’s capable creation, the actors ascend and descend a spiral staircase—a visual metaphor for the swirl of their rising and falling fortunes.
The family name reminded me of the ironic vision of English poet William Blake, whose 1789 book Songs of Innocence and Experience presents whimsical glimpses of paradise on earth, undercut with the harshness of darker, more demonic forces. By choosing to give this appellation to a modern American family, playwright Karam, who has earned praise and several Tony awards for this superb production, suggests that Americans are living in a kind of limbo—it is a Heaven that can flip, in a moment, into a Hell. By clinging together, mindful of the wayward spins of our wheel of fortune, we might just make the best of what we have.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.