The Humans at The Kennedy Center

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Be it Christmas, Thanksgiving, Passover, or Festivus, the family convening for an annual anticipated holiday ritual that begins with good intentions, love, and thanks for all those gathering, but will inevitably devolve into a miserable airing of deeply-buried, lifelong grievances is one of the most tired and overused tropes in the cannon of American theatrical comedy or drama. When creativity comes to a halt, have a family dinner to force the blowup. Steven Karam’s 2016 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning The Humans, currently on national tour playing at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, seems to start out no differently on the surface. But Karam’s clever devices masterfully directed by original Broadway Director Joe Mantello takes a subtle left turn to shine a very truthful and realistic light on the plight of a typical American family

The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington
The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington Julieta Cervantes

Erik and Deirdre Blake have traveled with his invalid mother Fiona, known as Momo, from Scranton, and older daughter Aimee from Philadelphia, into New York to spend Thanksgiving with younger daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Rich in their new duplex in Chinatown. The setup is rife with all the clichés to set up family clashes. Brigid’s standard of living is beneath the suburban family’s norm. Her mother wishes they were married. The neighborhood is urban sketchy with dubious characters continuously spotted outside the building. The apartment building constantly rumbles with mechanical and occupancy noises as the power comes in and out. Thanksgiving dinner is served on paper plates and wine drunk from plastic cups at a card table with folding chairs.

But Karam shakes up the norm. All these nuisances are not used to set up the traditional and expected family riffs (although they do come out), but to play out more like a contemporary American horror story. The mysterious house with its startling noises, the suspicious outsiders hovering in the shadows, the power that mysteriously cuts out at inconvenient times, characters have sleepless nights filled with bizarre dreams, and even Momo’s incoherent outbursts of dementia, which over time become more violent and seem less like autonomic nervous system reflexes and more as if she was possessed by an evil spirit— Karam has prepared the scene. His stroke of prize-winning brilliance is that the horrors the Blake family faces are not what is expected of that genre either. In fact, they are a reflection of everyday American nightmares—financial difficulties, unemployment, broken relationships, health issues, and, the most uniquely American nightmare of all, horrible health care. The Blakes are universal stand-ins for us all. Their collective character flaw is their present day humanity. The real truth revealed is that the American Dream is busted.

The cast is superb. Led by TV veterans Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed as Erik and Deirdre, both play brilliantly against type and, in an unusual move, they also provide interpretations differing from their Tony-winning Broadway predecessors Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Reed has made a career of tough-talking, comical, blue-class broads, yet here draws on maternal warmth and balance. Reed still receives (and delivers flawlessly) the bulk and the best of the one-liners. Yes, she needles and prods as only as mother can, but Reed makes it clear her meddling comes from a place of love and faith. She might be able to accept her daughter’s choice of living arrangement and job deficiencies if she can just reciprocate with a statue of the Virgin Mary as a housewarming gift (maybe the talisman this modern day evil needs to ward against). We see her Deirdre give selflessly to her daughters, her husband, and especially her mother-in-law, never wavering that God will see them all through their disappointments and transgressions.

The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington
The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington Julieta Cervantes

Thomas, immortalized for his iconic portrayal of the perpetually optimistic and eventually successful John Boy Walton of his youth, is heartbreaking as the middle-aged version of himself that has watched his dreams of a better life be, one by one, brutally decimated. He now is plagued by health problems, sleep problems, financial problems, and the ultimate problem no one prepares you for growing up and planning, taking care of a debilitated parent when you can’t afford proper care. His position is summed up in one debilitating line: “I thought I’d be settled by my age, you know, but it never ends … mortgage, car payments, internet, our dishwasher just gave out… Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Thomas’ Erik Blake is scarily the new prototypical American family man, who has been left behind in his pursuit of the middle class promise of the great American dream. Reed is exceptional in her role. This side of Thomas is a revelation in his.

Therese Plaehn as older daughter Aimee, currently dismissed from her law firm while quietly aching from a breakup with her former girlfriend and suffering from IBS, and Daisy Eagan (trivia question, the youngest actress to receive a Tony Award for her portrayal of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden at age 11) as younger daughter Brigid, who has studied and dreamed of becoming a composer but has only a mortgage’s worth of student loan debt and a job as a bartender to show for it, poignantly flesh out the broken dreams of the next generation, dreams their life experience never even allowed them to conjure. Their Gen-X characters have inherited a generation’s worth of disappointment that has denied them ever having any hope of a future. Luis Vega is amicable and a necessary balance as Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Richard, a trust fund baby whose parents designed that his inheritance not become available until his 40th birthday (a fact met with subdued resentment and hostility by Erik, despite their otherwise many commonalities). His parents’ intent to teach him the value of hard work and money has somewhat backfired and created another Gen-X prototype—the eternal student who has remained in grad school until he’s 38.

As solid as the entire the cast is, Lauren Klein, the only cast member reprising her role from New York, delivers the most special and nuanced performance of the evening as the wheelchair bound, Alzheimer’s victim Momo. She sleeps through the bulk of dinner, carries no conversation, and her only lines are incoherent babbles that progress to ever more violent outbursts. But Klein passionately serves as the emotional interpreter for the family who can no longer find the words to make sense of their positions in life. The more deep-rooted truths and anxieties that are revealed, the more spontaneous and violent, eventually truly horrifying, her explosions become. Klein’s Momo is a terrifying yet heart-wrenching depiction of the struggle to find the humanity inside one who seems to have physically lost it.

Mantello deftly directs (almost choreographs) his cast gracefully around the two-tiered set (the entrance is upstairs with the bathroom and the only cellular reception, the kitchen and makeshift dining room downstairs) connected by a spiral staircase internally and elevator externally. He also masterfully orchestrates the rhythm of Karam’s words to draw out his characters’ subtlest nuances. Set Designer David Zinn has recreated his Tony Award-winning Broadway design of the hollow and cavernous duplex, builders white on builders white and virtually furniture free, with each room area clearly delineated and appropriately lit (or not, depending on lightbulb life, and fuse box and power supply status at any point) by Tony nominee Justin Townsend. It melds into a very effective background for this everyday horror tale (even if it results in the most absurdly spacious and rent inappropriate New York apartment space since Monica and Rachel moved out on Friends, but, hey, a guy has a stage to fill with something visually interesting).

The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington
The Humans Seattle Repertory Theatre Seattle, Washington Julieta Cervantes

All of this culminates in an evening where no quick answers are provided, no pat resolutions offered, and no relationships are permanently altered. The result is the status quo—the American family plods on to just survive another day, as individuals and as a unit. Or maybe not. As the characters exit the apartment to their next destinations on by one, Erik is left last, and Karam and Mantello turn the tables on the audience once more. After Momo’s final violent, almost exorcistic, verbal spewing, the progressively ominous background noises and blackouts, the outside marauders, all the mock horror story trappings of the building quickly intensify and combine to envelop Erik. They continue to escalate and overlap to the point of conjuring surreal or even supernatural interpretations of how this particular family gathering has ended for him. His only way out through the progressing darkness is via the basement door providing a tunnel of light, that proceeds to shut behind him of its own accord. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions. As humans, we have no understanding or warning of how our stories end. Why should the Blakes be any different?

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

The Humans plays through January 28, 2018 in the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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