By Patrick Hurley
The waning of tradition, the attenuation of the American middle-class, all wrapped in the fractured hope of connection, pierces the thick air of familial discord in Stephen Karam’s Tony Award Winning play The Humans, playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The Blake family, led by patriarch Erik (Reed Birney) and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) gather at their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard’s (Nick Mills) Deteriorating prewar duplex in lower Manhattan on Thanksgiving. Rounding out the family is Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother whom they all refer to as Momo (Lauren Klein) an elderly woman succumbing to the final stages of dementia. And their other daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) who is dealing with a job she’s about to lose, a girlfriend that has recently broken up with her, and an illness that will require a radical, life-changing surgery. As for the two couples, Erik and Dierdre, and Brigid and Richard, the masks of harmony slowly start slipping off as the afternoon wears on, and we come to learn of their struggles both monetary and personal. The desperate need they all have to communicate with one another is interrupted, always, by their differences and the history they share. And while there is love, there is also contention, resentment and regret. You know, family shit. It’s messy, unpredictable and can be occasionally cruel.
The dramaturgical through-line of the play, which is not cut and dry, has to do with the decline of contemporary family life in America. Most people in the audience will see something they recognize happening on stage. Whether it’s the humorous family dynamics that keep popping up, the illness of a loved one, Brigid’s mountain of student debt, or the lecture of a parent that is just picking on you because he or she knows you’re capable of more. It is reflective of middle-class values and traditions that are teetering on the brink of extinction. No longer does the American Dream of Arthur Miller’s scathing narratives hold any promise, instead, we are seeing the remnants of something that used to be in the middle, fall farther and farther away, perhaps into some existential oblivion. A dying breed.
Director Joe Mantello deftly controls the piece from becoming anything other than hyper-naturalistic. The tonal shifts from light to dark are handled just perfectly, as are the moments of overlap, where the split level scene is utilized less as a gimmick and more as a means of allowing characters to escape one another if need be. When a character stands on the second level alone, we are given a glimpse at a real moment. The sigh of relief of being alone for a minute.
The split level apartment set, complete with spiral staircase, serves the writing well. Scenic designer David Zinn has created a mood out of location that one hundred percent reflects the internal world of the Blake family, it’s worn and tired, has seen better days, and feels outdated. The entire cast are all so capable of locating the deeper truths in their characters, that the ninety minutes we spend with the Blake family goes by like a breeze. Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, both reprising their Tony Award Winning performances, are kind of phenomenal. Birney, with his slightly distracted, deeply affected Erik, who is going through a life change that mostly remains internalized, is a feat of brilliance. And Houdyshell on the other end, is a brash and overbearing mother who easily could be too much, but becomes more and more endearing because of the actor’s deep understanding of Deirdre’s loneliness and desperate attempts to connect with her family.
The play never falls into the traps of melodrama, never hinders the humor for too long, and leaves us with an ending that is at once ominous and perhaps hopeful. Like all of us, the characters in this play are trying to get through the damn day. So they can wake up, and do it all over again. And perhaps the dread of what is to come will overtake us at times, if we look around, we might be able to find some comfort, some light in the darkness, and hope in the fact that, if we’re lucky, we don’t have to do this alone.
By Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
The Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Avenue Downtown Los Angeles, 90012.
Tickets for “The Humans” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or by visiting the Center Theatre Group Box Office located at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $30 – $130 (ticket prices are subject to change).