Now extended through February 1st!
A small, quiet play that reverberates long after you see it
|American Theater Company presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
That all families are fraught with drama and dysfunction over the holidays is a most trod cliché. Gather a group around the table for Thanksgiving, and get ready for big secrets and even bigger emoting to unfold. With The Humans, director Stephen Karam adds one more story to the genre, but this one transcends cliché entirely, even as it reveals the unremarkable scars and wounds long festering under the domestically tranquil façade of the Blake family.
Unfolding in real time as the Blakes gather at aspiring musician Brigid Blake’s (Kelly O’Sullivan) new apartment for Thanksgiving, The Humans offers quietly wrenching revelations within pensive silences and quiet corners as much as – perhaps more than – when there’s actual dialogue ebbing and flowing. Karam has a gift for revealing the deepest intricacies of his characters in moments of wordless isolation.
Listening to her children discuss their troubled lives while sitting unnoticed on the stairs, Hanna Dworkin’s damaged, hurting, intensely loving matriarch Deirdre Blake reveals a woman determined to maintain a delicate balance of family unity and tight-knit security, even as her family is spinning out of control.
The Blakes are besieged on two fronts: First is the shapeless, nameless free-flowing undertow of terror that exerts a toxic force on the lives of Deidre, her husband Erik (Keith Kupferer), and their children Brigid and Aimee (Sadieh Rafai). On the surface, all appears regular-old-Un-Happy-American-Normal. Below, monsters reside.
The trappings of Thanksgiving dinner are on hand, as the family – which also includes the wheelchair-bound, profoundly demented grandmother Momo (Jean Moran) – gathers. The undertow will not be ignored. Secrets and revelations arrive in drips and drops, sometimes as sarcastic, off-hand asides. By the close of the dinner, the Blakes realize that their family is balanced on a crater of debts, plagued by catastrophic health issues and resultantly failing careers and that overpowering sense of malaise of impending doom that seems unstoppable.
And just to bring home the spooky forces at work in this Brigid’s new abode, the Blakes constantly hear the disconcerting noises of the outside world intruding into the apartment. The renters upstairs can’t seem to stop stomping. The laundry cycles with an ominous percussive thump.
Aimee Blake has the most understated and heartbreaking predicament: She’s been kicked off the tenure track from her job and is this/close to getting fired – all because she has to miss a lot of work due to chronic stress-induced stomach ailments. A colostomy bag is in her future. As Aimee, Rafai is terrific, a low-ley, woman whose practical soldiering onward doesn’t quite hide the deeply fearful expression in her glinting, obsidian eyes.
O’Sullivan’s Brigid, meanwhile, has been crushed by damningly faint praise of a “recommendation” she’s received in her quest to get into grad school. Reading it aloud, she is devastation incarnate.
Then there’s Dad, played by Kupferer, one of the most reliably great character actors working. His Erik is arguably dealing with the most malicious of demons. He’s got a late scene that’s practically wordless, a small masterpiece of sound, lighting, blocking and acting that absolutely pinpoints the abject terror of finding yourself alone, defenseless and hunted. The scene is one of shocking vulnerability, Kupferer virtually turning Erik inside out to show the impossible tender and oh-so-easily scarred interior lurking just below his father-knows-best-dammit macho exterior. It’s a thrilling scene that will haunt you for long afterward.
This is a small, deceptively quiet play where the fireworks of family implosion reverberate in your head long after the curtain has come down. If you’ve got a holiday gathering in the offing this month – or even if you don’t – there’s wisdom, humor, and deep honesty found in the performances Director PJ Paparelli draws from his cast. This one is an off-beat, full-hearted must-see holiday treat.
The Humans continues through
January 4th February 1st at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm and 6pm. Tickets are $43-$48, and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ATCweb.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
PJ Paparelli (director), David Ferguson (set design), Brittany Dee Bodley (costume design), Brian Hoehne (lighting design), Patrick Bley (sound design), Amanda J. Davis (production stage manager), Alex Thompson (video production), Michael Brosilow (photos).