Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play's Off-Broadway and Broadway director, Joe Mantello, repeats those duties for the tour, and the production maintains a brisk, snappy pace that carefully choreographs the flow of emotional ties, both love and resentment, among the Blake family. The family includes Erik and Dierdre Blake, their two adult daughters Aimee and Brigid, and Erik's dementia-addled mother Fiona, called "Momo." There is also one outsider, Brigid's boyfriend Richard. Brigid and Richard have just moved into an apartment in New York City's Chinatown. As a sign of their couple-hood being a "real thing," they have invited the rest of the clan for Thanksgiving dinner.
That apartment bears mention right from the start. Designed by David Zinn, who won the Tony for Best Scenic Design in a Play for the Broadway version, it reveals in glorious detail the two-level apartment housed in a dilapidated building in a dangerous neighborhood that, given the constant pressure on New York City's housing stock, is now trendy. The kitchen and dining room are on the windowless basement level, the bedroom and bathroom on the street level, with living room space on both. The joists that support the second level floor are exposed in a cutaway view of the structure on which this edifice depends. Visible steel poles in the basement prop up the aging joists. The two levels are joined by a spiral staircase, which, it is soon pointed out in one of many not unsubtle passive-aggressive remarks, will be of no use to wheelchair-confined Momo, should she need to use the bathroom. As the young couple are still setting up their digs, dinner will be on a folding table with seating on folding chairs supplemented by a white plastic patio chair. On the top level is a stylish recliner, a castoff from Richard's parents, while below there is a quite dated sofa, upholstered in shades of mustardalso a castoff from Richard's parents.
Erik, a custodian in a Catholic school, and Dierdre, who has been with the same undisclosed company for forty years ("They couldn't get along without her," boasts Erik), live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is where they raised their two daughters. Much to their dismay, the two girls have fled to the cityAimee (a lawyer) to Philadelphia, Brigid (an aspiring musician who waits tables) to New York. The girls clearly have very different lives in mind than the ones lived by their parents. Location is just one of the dividing lines, along with diet, vacation preferences and religion. The generations try to understand one another, worry about each otherthe girls noticing signs that their parents are aging, and Momo, oblivious to most of the goings on, is a constant preview of where longevity may well lead.
In the course of their dinner, they revisit old wounds and wax nostalgic about old times and family traditions. The also learn new things about one another, unleashing new feelings. Pretty much what lots of families do when they get together over a turkey and alcohol. Stephen Karam captures this dynamic with language that is absolutely authentic, including the minute details that make each family and family member unique, creating a web of alliances and shared confidences that connect each family member to the others. A particularly moving scene plays out the Blakes' tradition of each family member telling the others what she or he is thankful for this year. The outsider, Richard, is presented as the innocent, aiming to be welcomed into the Blake clan while trying to hold on to his integrity. Anyone who has been in the position of trying to find the points of contact with a romantic partner's family can relate. And lest any of the above make it sound like The Humans is somber, I assure you it is absolutely funny. Serious, yes, but awash with humor, from gentle chuckles to howling laughter.
A crackerjack cast has been assembled for this touring production. Erik Blake is played by Richard Thomas, who is every bit the guy who has worked hard all his life and not seen the big payoffs he expected. You would never mistake Erik Blake for Thomas' career-launching role, John-Boy Walton. His wife Dierdre is played to perfection by New York theater stalwart Pamela Reed, masterful in delivering verbal quips that are innocent on the outside, stuffed with resentment and disapproval inside. Yet she also portrays Dierdre's yearning for her life to have some meaning that has so far eluded it.
Daisy Eagan, the youngest female actor to ever receive a Tony Award (in 1991, Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for The Secret Garden), is wonderful as Brigid, showing us the different sides of the young woman's persona: playful and insecure, argumentative and loyal. Luis Vega wins us over as Richard, a genuine nice guy who knows he is walking on eggshells around his girlfriend's family, while Therese Plaehn does strong work as Aimee, pivoting back and forth between dueling self-images. Finally, Lauren Klein recreates the role of Momo she essayed in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. Momo spends a good portion of the evening either asleep or oblivious, but Klein brings full force to those moments when she does connect with her family.
Fitz Patton is sound designer, an important element of the play, as the varied, harsh noises of New York invade Brigid and Richard's apartment from the street, the boiler room, and the upstairs neighbors. It should also be stated that the dialogue has been well amplified to be heard clearly, even when characters sit with their back to the audienceno ridiculous arrangement where cast members sit on one side of a dining table so that they can all face the audience here. Sarah Laux' costumes are conceived as everyday wear jacked up the tiniest notch for the holiday, and in synch with each character's personality. Justin Townsend's lighting effectively focus on transitions, especially with scenes that shift back and forth rapidly from the upper to lower levels of the apartment
An acquaintance told me today that his wife had seen The Humans last night and did not like it. She found it to be nothing more than a noisy family arguing all night. Yes, the Blakes are often noisy and they do argue. That makes them, in my estimation, a real family. If seeing that on stage will trouble or bore you, maybe this play is not for you. But I saw these five people (six, when Momo rejoins the living) do much more than argue. They keep secrets from one another, they support one another, they cherish memories created together, they try (however ineptly) to solve each other's problems, they amuse each other, they steel themselves to one another, and fall apart in front of one another. They love one another. They are unflinchingly, painfully and hilariously real. They are humans.
Unlike many recent hit plays, The Humans is not played out on a large historical canvas (War Horse, All the Way), nor does it deploy elaborate technology (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), nor deal with outsize emotional trauma (August: Osage County). Those are all terrific, but that's not what Stephen Karam had in mind. The Blakes are a simple family, there is nothing really very special about any of them. Yet each are special to one another, unique and essential to the whole family. This wonderful play captures those qualities, drawing light on the joy and the pain that comes simply from being human.
The Humans, through February 18, 2018, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $135.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.thehumansonbroadway.com.
Writer: Stephen Karam; Director: Joe Mantello; Scenic Design: David Zinn; Costume Design: Sarah Laux; Lighting Design: Justin Townsend; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Casting: Carrie Gardner, C.S.A; Production Supervisor: William Joseph Barnes; Production Stage Manager: Brian J. L'Ecuyer; Production Supervisor: Denny Daniello; Production Manager: Aurora Productions.
Cast: Daisy Eagan (Brigid Blake), Lauren Klein (Fiona "Momo" Blake), Therese Plaehn (Aimee Blake), Pamela Reed (Dierdre Blake), Richard Thomas (Erik Blake), Luis Vega (Richard Saad).