Thursday, June 28, 2018

“The Humans”: Reflections On An American Life of A Long Ago Era


Stephen Karam’s drama “The Humans”, 2016 recipient of The Tony Award for Best Play is currently showing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through July 29th. One of the runner -ups for this coveted award was Florian Zeller’s heartbreaking “The Father”. In each play a character suffering from dementia is either at the fore or a family member needing extra care.

Both excellent in their own right as one family keeps their loved one at home for the family to care for and the other seeks professional care. The toll it takes on both is but a reminder that in families there is no right or wrong, only the dynamic differs.

We are a complicated tribe, we humans. We like to gather together in celebration of holidays (think “August: Osage County”, among them, but with more brutally toward one another) that most will confess cause more stress among family members that at any other time or gatherings.

On this Thanksgiving the Blake’s, Erik (Fred Birney) Aimee (Cassie Beck), Brigid (Sarah Steele), Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and Fiona or Momo (a force with which to be reckoned, Lauren Klein) are congregating in Richard (Nick Mills) and Brigid’s new flat located in a not so pretty, almost eerie section of New York’s Chinatown.

The two story flat designed by David Zinn makes room for easy flow of traffic if you don’t count climbing up a steel winding staircase that opens to the larger of the two rooms. The one bathroom and other bedroom are located upstairs as well with a recliner and boxed “stuff” waiting to be put away. The kitchen and eating area is down stairs with Richard (a fine Nick Mills) as the designated cook which is the best place for him at the time.

The Blake family hails from Scranton, Pa. They would now fit into the middle or lower class, (used to be solid middle class) surviving from paycheck to paycheck category.

Proud and loving remembrances laced with family humor and real life situations push this dramedy along in a 90 minute oft time sit -com, oft time tragic moments that will have you chuckling and teary eyed at the same time.  
Fred Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele, Nick Mills and (back to audience) Cassie Beck 
Erik has been a high school maintenance man for twenty-eight years, alludes to the fact that he and Deirdre are planning to fix up a second summer house and reminds Brigid that, but for the fact that she chose not to go to a state school she wouldn’t be in debt and bartending nights.

Deirdre is an office manager making less than the two new hires, in their twenties, who are making five times her salary. She too has had the same job for forty years. From the outside they look like solid straight laced and proud.   

Daughter Aimee has a law degree and is on the verge of not becoming a partner in the firm that spells ‘time to move on’. She is also suffering from colitis and just broke up with her long time girlfriend. Still haunting Dad Erik is the fact that she just escaped being in the Twin Towers in the wake of the 911tragedy. His dreams of losing his daughter trouble him still. She has what my tribe would call tsuris.

And Momo, well she’s there somewhere. She does have her lucid moments and on one occasion even remembered the words to a favorite tune this proud Irish family always sang at past Thanksgiving gatherings. They have their highs and all too often their lows.

With most of the excellent award winning cast in tow (Mills came in a bit later) and under the watchful eyes and excellent staging of director Joe Mantello, Karam’s “The Humans” paints a pretty accurate picture of everyday folks who would love to live the dream, but either don’t have the means, lost their way or blew their chances to do so.
Fred Birney and Jayne Houdyshell
It’ so human, it hurts. It pulses with off the wall humor, so much so that if you are not used to the rhythms of these family subtleties, you will miss them. I especially understood Deirdre’s frustrations to her Points on Weight Watchers if she had chips and dip appetizers. I couldn’t help myself from almost hearing my own cries about points.

Conversations run back and fourth in layered and painful admissions that up until now have put the family on a superficial plateau, are blurted out over the course of the afternoon/evening visit. 

Confessions, losses, new -found awakenings and truths now become out loud facts as when a hurt and wounded Aimee confesses that she and her long time girlfriend split and her disease is getting to the point that surgery is needed and she has no insurance. Cassie Beck is so credible as Aimee that yours truly felt her hurt and loss.

Erik finally had the guts to tell his family that they lost their lake house and would have to downsize the family home as well. He has dreams going back to the 9/11 incident that haunt him and he can’t seem to dodge them. The most eerie of his scene as the play ends, his standing at the doorway in a haze of mist after everyone heads for the car, and not knowing exactly what he is thinking or will do.

Reed Birney’ Erik and Jayne Houdyshell’s Deirde are the yin to the other’s yang. Together they make a whole; supporting, lifting up, dreaming the same dreams, hurting the same hurts, bringing their all that feels right and that that doesn’t, into focus knowing that you might have walked in their shoes.  

Steele, a wanna be composer and social worker Mills, who’s Richard is at least one or two rungs above the lower middle class Blake’s financially, make a good couple; believable from the outset. They are easy to get along with and open to sharing and looking compatible even with Brigid’s constant kvetching about having to work bartending in two bars to pay off her school debt.

Justin Townsend’s lighting design reflects some illumination from the one window in the flat. Fritz Patton’s sound effect are a little overbearing and Sarah Laux’ costumes are just right.

“There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another… poverty, criticism, health, loss of someone, old age, death”.
                                            Napoleon Hill.
If you listen carefully, all seven make their way into Karam’s “The Humans”; that’s what makes it so human.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 29th
Organization: Center Theatre Group
Phone: 213-972-4400
Production Type: Drama
Where: 135 N. Grand Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Web: centertheatregroup.org
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho

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