Plays for Our Times: "The Humans," by Stephen Karam

12/11/2017 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2017

Second in an ongoing series, Plays for Our Times

The American dream---the dream that succeeding generations will do better than their parents, financially and in accomplishment---is historically unique to this country and, from cradle to grave, makes strivers of us all. But what happens---as is happening now in 21st-century America---when not only the children stumble, but the parents do, too?

In Stephen Karam’s absorbing play, “The Humans,” this fraught trajectory is traced in the shifting fortunes of the Blake family---the parents are working-class from Scranton, PA, their two daughters are barely hanging on in New York City as middle-class professionals. The event bringing the family together: Thanksgiving dinner at younger daughter Brigid’s Chinatown apartment. As if a family’s fraught trajectory were not tinder enough, Thanksgiving always provides a playwright with a dramatic firecracker of a setting.

But this play is less firecracker than quietly thought-provoking, casting light---and pity---on striving Americans today. The characters are recognizable---as us. “The Humans” won the 2016 Tony for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. (Note: The following contains multiple spoiler alerts.)

As the play opens, the parents, Erik and Deirdre, have made their way with difficulty into Brigid’s apartment, needing to navigate the wheelchair of Erik’s mother, Momo. Cracks are made by the parents about Brigid’s “alley” apartment; Brigid defends it as “interior courtyard.” Daughter notes that they, her parents, might have helped with money, to which Dad responds, reaching way back in time, “Well, I know someone who refused to go to a state school.”

This feels like a stereotypical generational drama shaping up, but the notes of financial trouble afflicting all family members, the play’s principal theme, are sounded early, resonantly, and, rare for modern drama, in stoic fashion. As daughter Aimee the attorney says, explaining the Blakes to Brigid’s new boyfriend Rich, “Our family believes in stoic sadness.” In the production I saw, that line got a laugh. Sadness too is a note we may hear more of as the 21st century batters the American dream---and, to deal with that battering, stoicism may be this play’s most valuable take-away.

The financial and attendant challenges are big: Aimee has just learned she is not on the partner track at her law firm, which means an invitation to leave. Adding to her pain, her girlfriend has left her and she has ulcerative colitis. Brigid, a composer, is not getting the encouragement an artist needs; a letter of faint recommendation, which she reads to the family without excuse-making, spells curtains. With massive student debt to pay off, Brigid works nights as a bartender. Deirdre, the mother, is the stable center. She’s been with the same company 40 years, since she graduated from high school, working now as office manager, but making a salary one-fifth that of two guys in their twenties with “special degrees.” In her tending after others and her philosophical strength, Deirdre is the office manager of the family, too.

Erik, the father, is in the direst straits: He just lost his job as head of maintenance at a Catholic high school. Not only has he lost his salary and his pension, necessitating the sale of the family’s beloved lake property and his taking a job at Walmart in a town some distance from Scranton (so kids from his old school won’t discover him). On top of financial precariousness, Erik is now burdened with shame: He cheated on Deirdre with a teacher from the school, violating the school’s morality code as well as his own.

This revelation, to his daughters and coming late, throws light on all Erik’s lines previous and deepens the play. For example, on the (existential) cost of living: “I thought I’d be settled by my age, you know, but man, it never ends….mortgage, car payments, internet, dishwasher just gave out.... Don’tcha think it should cost less to be alive?” On his life expectations: “End of the day, everything that anyone’s got….one day it goes….whatever gifts God’s given us, in the end, no matter who you are....everything you have goes.” His toast at dinner is a plea in advance for forgiveness: “I’m thankful for having your unconditional love and support. Hope there’s nothing any of us could ever do to….change that….what we’ve got right here, ‘cause this is what matters….this family.” Even the verse he’s given to sing from an Irish ditty resonates: “But if blackness falls upon my lot; / If I should fall and you should not / Pray that all my fears be soon forgot, / May peace and joy be with you all.”

Deirdre’s lines, in retrospect, also resonate more. She feels poverty can be a gift, in what it teaches you, which is a good attitude to have, given her husband’s loss of job and pension. She feels it’s a gift---“It’s a blessing, you know”---to have grandmother Momo live with them, but how, with straitened finances, will they care for Momo as her dementia advances? Deirdre urges marriage on Brigid and Rich---“Marriage can help you weather a storm”; if only Aimee and her girlfriend had married. As for the new storm in her own marriage: You sense she will weather it, but the shock reverberates in her offhand comments about the world’s craziness (“What next?”). Even before this shock, and as stable as she is, Deirdre had existential anxiety: Her daughters laugh over her email quoting a Scientific American article declaring that, at the subatomic level, “Nothing is solid.”

In increasingly chaotic times, both parents find solace in their Catholic faith, while their daughters don’t. Erik jokes that young people find their faith in juice-cleansing and yoga. When Rich alludes to earlier depression, Erik cites religion as a “natural anti-depressant,” though when Rich says he’s “rebooted” his life, Erik wonders why anyone would want a second round. Deirdre gifts Brigid with a statue of the Virgin Mary: “Just keep it for my sake, okay?” There is no parallel faith in politics, though; in fact, political action to improve their station does not figure at all in this family’s life---which, at a time when America’s democracy is faltering, is telling.

The play ends with Erik’s panic attack, which occurs after he’s made confession to his daughters and is alone in the apartment. Gasping, he automatically reverts to his faith, calling out to Father Flynn. Then, in an evocation of his recurring nightmare that he has shared with Rich--- of a faceless woman gesturing him toward a tunnel---he takes the lantern he gave Brigid (for the next hurricane) and exits toward the hallway, lit to resemble….a tunnel.

All these dramatic strokes and insights come in no organized fashion; the play is nonlinear and plotless, but then, Thanksgiving dinners are not generally plotted (though in the Trump era they may be more so, given the high conflict between liberal and conservative). I must confess that, upon reading the script when it was first published in 2015, I was underwhelmed: The action seemed discontinuous in the extreme, with characters directing lines past each other from the set’s two levels, or focusing overmuch on arranging this, that, or getting food to table. And I do love soliloquys, which this play has no time for, only short lines overlapping.

But production can illuminate, especially a masterful production like the one currently up at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Continuity from first script to the further-developed one now on view is no doubt enhanced by having the same director at the helm, the highly-regarded Joe Mantello, who directed the 2015 New York premiere (Seattle is the first city in a national tour; schedule below). Mantello mines the richness inherent in Karam’s script by skillfully underscoring each character’s moments of anxiety---financial, emotional, existential. And he knits the characters together, with their anxieties and their embattled love, into a believable family that is both unique and archetypal. Leading a strong cast are veteran stage and screen actors Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed; each cast member individualizes their role in memorable ways. I am glad I gave the play another look, thanks to a Seattle Times review. The more fraught America we live in since Trump’s election also brought me back to the play.

Still, I could do without Karam’s touches of horror and mystery, which seem unduly portentous: the loud thuds on the ceiling, the lightbulbs suddenly blinking out, and, especially during Erik’s panic attack, the pots and pans in the kitchen suddenly falling off the counter. The playwright asserts his play is a “family thriller.” But: A panic attack is sufficient unto itself. Also, as Deirdre says, “There’s enough going on in the real world to give me the creeps,” so why the sound effects?

Dramaturgy aside, Mantello delivers on Karam’s astringent vision of our darker times, raising questions about the viability of the American dream. Karam gives us no song-and-dance optimism that we can recover that dream. He means to be as honest as possible, to (according to program notes) “avoid propaganda or a tidy resolution.”

Again, what I appreciate are Karam’s stoic characters, who will still dream, though in less high-flown ways than our national myth has heretofore required. Unlike the neurotic characters and dysfunctional families we too often get, these characters are normal, responsible, caring, resilient; this family is actually functional. And, unlike so many kvetching fictional families, this one is grateful for what they have: They say grace before dinner, then say it again. Karam’s loose-weave structure, better than a tightly-woven plot, allows us to view these stoics in the round, as it were, and imagine how they---and we ourselves---would respond to the testing coming from all sides.

At the end of Seattle Rep’s moving production, as Erik hesitantly approaches the tunnel/hallway with lantern, I was struck by a thought: of the insubstantiality of the human being and human life. But like a Giacometti statue, so thin as almost not to be, the humans in “The Humans” still stand, still act, still are. And therein lies Hope.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Humans” ends its run Sun., Dec. 17. Cities included on the national tour are: Washington, D.C. (Kennedy Center, Jan. 9-28); Chicago (Jan. 30-Feb. 11); Minneapolis (Feb. 13-18); Schenectady (Mar. 6-11); Boston (Mar. 13-25); Des Moines (April 3-8); Cleveland (April 10-29); Charlotte (May 1-6); Dallas (May 8-20); Tempe (May 29-June 3); San Francisco (June 5-17); and Los Angeles (June 19-July 29). For the revised edition of the play, see here.

For the first in the series Plays for Our Times, my review of “Oslo” by J.T. Rogers, see here.

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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