“Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?”
So says Erik (Arky Michael), the patriarch of the family that is the heart of The Humans, a family dinner-table play for the new century.
The Blake family has always been marked by struggle, but in contemporary America, the horrors that come with trying to live a good life in the throes of late-stage capitalism are too much to bear.
Erik’s dream of a retirement lake house is further away than ever.
His wife Dierdre (Di Adams) has held the same job since high school and is woefully underpaid.
Their daughters are suffering too: Aimee (Eloise Snape) is on the brink of losing her job due to her chronic health problems; Brigid (Madeleine Jones), who has invited her family to Thanksgiving in her creaky New York apartment, can’t seem to gain any ground as a composer and continues to collect unemployment.
And then there’s Momo (Diana McLean), Brigid’s grandmother, who has dementia and is lost inside one of her bad days.
For contrast there is Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Richard (Reza Momenzada), who will soon receive a small fortune in trust from his parents, and who had the luxury of pausing school and work during a depressive episode.
The Blakes have always worked through ill health and emotional distress. Luxury is about as real a concept to them as unicorns.
Erik and Deirdre try to accept their lot with grace, Christian faith, and good-natured resolve. But Brigid and Aimee, from a younger generation promised more and then sorely denied it all, can’t self-medicate with old platitudes.
The Humans takes place over Thanksgiving dinner in real time (about 100 minutes), and in this time all grasping for solid ground in the wake of breakups, traumatic experiences and economic hardship. Each has a rich inner life. Playwright Stephen Karam’s characters are blazingly three-dimensional.
This is a play that haunts, and there are moments in this production when it really delivers. It’s designed to shatter the myth of the middle class and to show us, with great compassion, how difficult it us for all of us to be alive.
Directed with keen insight and detail by Anthea Williams, this production, all heartbreaking naturalism, works best in its bigger scenes. Williams is a natural hand at human chaos, and she makes Karam’s polyphonic, overlapping dialogue sing.
She layers in all the play’s creeping thriller-horror tropes with skill: faceless women, foreboding sound effects, and prophetic lines all elevate this play from typical drama into something more unsettling, and while it feels cramped and slightly compromised by the size and resources of the Old Fitz, Williams still works from inside this exceptional script to create a deliciously uneasy world.
Karam writes the Blakes with uncommon tenderness and the family dynamic in the Old Fitz feels finely-constructed, loving, and painfully real. Onstage here, it’s those quieter moments that tend to flounder, but there are a few standout performances that anchor the piece and bring it back together: Snape’s Aimee is a bright light, straddling the difficult intersection of comedy and anguish; McLean’s Momo is smartly underplayed; and Adam’s long-suffering mother is wrenchingly affecting.
In the play’s final moments, when the Blakes, especially Erik, must finally face the stuff of their nightmares, the Old Fitz space and lighting board (design by Kelsey Lee), is used to full effect.
The hairs on the back of your neck just might stand up.