Public health officials are recommending Zoom Thanksgiving festivities this year, but you can celebrate early with a boisterous and bittersweet sit-down with the Blake family, the proud and careworn family in Stephen Karam’s play The Humans.
The Humans was in rehearsal at Olney Theatre Company when the Coronavirus upended the theater industry, among many others. Using some of the government’s Paycheck Protection Funds, Olney decided to pay the production team and actors two more weeks to create a streamed version of the play, under the game direction of Aaron Posner.
I had the great good fortune to see The Humans on Broadway a few years back and the play left me shattered. And happy to spend time with the Blakes and also happy I was not one of the Blakes because I saw so much of myself and my family dynamics in the play.
Glad to report that the streamed version left me with much the same feelings, even though filmed theater is not my favorite way of experiencing the art form. Top-notch acting, just the right amount of video special effects, and a subtle talent in using the Zoom-style meeting squares make for a satisfying dose of theater. You wish it were live, but 2020 is all about compromises and doing things in a different way.
Karam’s slice of life drama takes place in the present, in the new (to them) Chinatown apartment of couple Brigid (Dani Stoller) and Richard (Jonathan Raviv), a duplex, a rarity in New York City. Paige Hathaway’s two-story set strikingly captures the potential—a spiral staircase, a window, so much space!—and the already lived-in look of a New York apartment in a centuries-old building.
Richard and Brigid are having her family over for Thanksgiving and to see the new digs. The Blakes troop in from Pennsylvania—sister Aimee (Kimberly Gilbert), a lawyer in Philadelphia; mother Deidre (Sherri L. Edelen), devout Catholic and hand-wringing Mom who brings a statue of the Virgin Mary as part of a care package to the couple; father Erik (Mitchell Hébert), distracted and gruff; and his mother Momo (Catie Flye), agitated and babbling in the throes of dementia.
The visit starts out all gung-ho about Brigid’s new place and her relationship with Richard but quickly devolves with all too true-to-life digs from the family about living in expensive New York when it’s much cheaper in Pennsylvania as well as the couple being perennial students, unmarried and separated from the Church. They snoop and eavesdrop on each other with such familiar fervor it very well could be your family up there on the screen.
The holiday cheer starts to show cracks as the day progresses and the liquor flows. When Aimee’s not in the bathroom dealing with her chronic health condition, she’s half-crying on the phone to her ex. Erik seems to want to say something to the family, but can’t bring himself to do it. Deidre fusses over her daughters, wanting to run their lives—a way to shift focus from her own problems and anguish. And Momo just sits off by herself, wailing and incoherent, a mere episode away from the nursing home.
Revelations about the family seep out, no matter how hard the Blakes try to conjure the warmth and closeness of holidays past with traditional Irish drinking songs, weepy recitations of old aphorisms from Momo, and the every-year ritual of passing around a pig made of peppermint and saying what you are grateful for before giving the candy a whack with a tiny hammer.
For all their proud insistence on tradition and the specialness of their clan, the Blakes are the new American family—broken and dislocated, robbed of the American dream, just trying to survive, forget about thrive.
The floating Zoom-style squares convey the closeness of the family, but also emphasizes the isolation they feel as a result of their individual predicaments. The squares line up and realign as the Blakes jockey for position within the family structure; Deidre and Erik moving away from each other, Aimee and Brigid bumping up against one another the way sisters often do.
Stoller and Gilbert are particularly adept at using the format to their advantage—the two actors cozying up in the corners of the squares to share private jokes, one-up each other and complain about their parents. Edelen, too, uses the structure of the squares effectively, as she appears so cut-off, isolated and needy you just want to bust her out of her literal and figurative box.
It’s evident that Hébert’s wounded-eyed Erik has built sturdy walls around himself, and too, the closeup format stresses his increasingly shaky façade and his inability to reach out and reach through. And Momo sits off in her own little cube, out of it but still startlingly alive.
What will become of the Blakes? Perhaps they will just keep going, haunted and hampered by the past, strapped into the present and facing a future that is anything but up.
The Humans by Stephen Karam . Director: Aaron Posner. Featuring: Sherri L. Edelen, Catie Flye, Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Jonathan Raviv, Dani Stoller . Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway. Costume Designer: Kelsey Hunt. Lighting Designer: Max Doolittle. Sound Designer: Sarah O’Halloran. Video Editor: Emily Jerison. Production Stage Manager: Tashiana Quinones. Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.