This co-production of The Humans, Stephen Karam’s 2016 Tony Award winner from Citadel Theatre & Canadian Stage has come to the Bluma Appel Theatre. We are functioning in real time for about an hour and a half of a Thanksgiving Day, an average American family melting down before our eyes. It’s just another day in the long descent that is modern American life, rather than the actual end of the world. There are several sorts of pain & conflict featured, and they all ring true, all painted vividly and portrayed with authenticity.
There’s a big impressive set designed by Judith Bowden. a stunning piece of architecture that allows us to see six characters interact on two levels before our eyes. Downstage right there’s a spiral staircase, while in the middle of the upstage walls are doors leading to the corridors taking one to the elevator that’s needed to get Momo –the aging dementia sufferer who uses a wheelchair –up or down. The Humans is like absurd Rossini in the robotic frenzy of a distempered family talking and shouting and living and gradually dying. Sometimes they listen to one another but more often they’re busily racing on to their next gut response. Between Bowden’s design and Jackie Maxwell’s direction there is no mistaking the tour de force that is Karam’s play, at least for the remarkable amount of energy in this passionate human comedy.
My musical ear craves something softer, rebelling against the size of the theatre that compels many of the most tender moments to be louder than I would wish, like Mozart played in a bigger venue or with a bigger ensemble than the piece really should require. And yet when there is a quiet tête-a-tête the dialogue fades away, as the exchanges become too private for us to hear. So no, Karam isn’t Mozart and doesn’t want tender rococo. Much as I might wish that Maxwell and/or Bowden would vouchsafe us something delicate and small—because in spite of myself I’m drawn into the lives of every one of these characters, caring about every damn one of them–the play itself is built to run like a clockwork monstrosity, a Rube Goldberg nightmare of human devolution.
From time to time we hear a trash compactor running in the building, a noisy machine that might be a family member.
The production will get better, as they get more accustomed to playing the lines with a laughing audience and the curious acoustics of this big space. My heart rebels against such intimacy played to such a big audience. I think the size necessitates a certain broadness of delivery to some parts of the play, that undermines its power, making it more generic and less incisive. I wonder if it might be better played in a tiny space. Yet that’s just me, viscerally identifying with the older generation in the play, trying to turn back the clock to another sort of family drama from another century, wanting to MAGA at least onstage rather than face what they (and we) have become. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen such an accurate snapshot of the American Dream turned nightmare, a human comedy that’s often funny even if the laughs are painful ones.
I think you’ll experience the same sort of split that I did, in responding simultaneously to the brilliant writing of the play and the remarkable production, precision performances from a tight ensemble of six actors:
- Maralyn Ryan
- Ric Reid
- Laurie Paton
- Alana Hawley Purvis
- Sara Farb
- Richard Lee
For the first half hour, which cleverly offers exposition, it’s a bit dazzling just coping with the voices coming from up and down, seemingly so alive that their baroque counterpoint of perfectly timed lines seems natural rather than contrived. And for the most part the intense complexity in your face pulls you in, hooking you on several different threads of conflict, plot, character. Once the machine hits its stride – or maybe what I mean is, once you start to understand the dynamics and calibrate the different elements– it just gets better. From time to time the reality acquires a metaphysical layer, especially towards the end: which I won’t spoil.
Whether you’re pulled in by the writing or the performances, it’s unlikely you’ll be indifferent. In places it’s wildly funny but there’s a great deal to jolt you and disturb you. Good thing I’m disturbed. The play speaks my language.
The Humans continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 25th.