The setup could not be simpler, and it’s one that lulls you into thinking you know the formula. Told in real time – it’s approximately 95 minutes without intermission – the national touring production of the 2016 Tony Award winning play The Humans, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3, revolves around the dinner table.
It’s New York at Thanksgiving. Scranton PA residents, Erik Blake (Richard Thomas) and his wife Deidre (Pamela Reed), along with older daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), and grandmother Fiona, more affectionately referred to as ‘Momo’ (Lauren Klein, who played the role on Broadway), a wheelchair-bound character with Alzheimer’s, have gathered at the somewhat dilapidated Manhattan apartment in the city’s Chinatown area to spend the holiday dinner with their younger daughter, Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her live-in student boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega).
When the play opens, papa Erik is standing in silence on the landing of the apartment’s upper level. Plastic shopping bags hang from each hand, but he appears to be carrying something else, something we can’t see; the burden of an issue that refuses to quit. He seems to be in a trance. It’s only when an ominous thump through the floorboards from the apartment above breaks the silence that he snaps out of whatever it is that is dominating his thoughts. But having seen him standing there, his mind a million miles from that apartment landing, you know it’s only a matter of time before there’s a reveal.
The first thing that strikes you about the play is the set. That landing where dad stood is actually the ground floor, the entrance into the apartment. Brigid and Richard have rented what they could afford, a run-down basement cement-block apartment lit by bare, white ceiling bulbs where the above level is the way in and the lower level, connected by a spiral staircase, is the live-in section, the dining room and the kitchen. The only window looking out is a restricted view of an alley that residents of the building, and presumably others, use as a place to stub their cigarettes, though Brigid likes to refer to it as an interior courtyard. Dad is not so impressed. “I think if you moved to PA, your quality of life would shoot up,” he states.
The conversation before and during the meal is a series of fast-moving family quips and sly critiques that constantly amuse. In fact, most of Stephen Karam’s script is angled heavily towards comedy with several laugh-out-loud, easily relatable observances that pop up and go off like mini firecrackers. “There’s no toilet paper!” a voice declares from the bathroom. And when mom emerges, she remarks, “Your bathroom doesn’t have a window,” as if a crime in the apartment planning had been committed. “I’m just saying,” she adds.
Over the course of the dinner we get to know each of the appealing family members and what life has done, and continues to do to them. With a premise such as this, you tend to home in on whatever character for whom you feel the most empathy, the one whose feelings and emotions are easier to understand from your own point of view. Older daughter Aimee is a lawyer, suffering from both colitis and a relationship breakup. Under normal circumstances, her condition, both physical and emotional, would be enough for some to feel they’d reached rock bottom, but Aimee’s humor and overall likable persona, due to both Karam’s writing and Plaehn’s performance in equal measure, continually buoys her character and stops Aimee from sinking and becoming lost in a morass of self pity.
Particularly heartbreaking is a piece written by Momo and read at the dinner table to the family. Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease; it’s the secret experienced by many but one for which we’re unprepared. Before the disease accelerated and Momo was able to reflect, she writes, “It’s strange becoming someone I don’t know.” The relatable horror is that many in the audience will be aware of what dementia is doing in their own homes, but rarely discuss. For the Blakes, if Alzheimer’s is hereditary, then it’s something extra to be concerned about.
But ultimately, it’s Thomas’ portrayal as dad that anchors the proceedings. Themes of regret, missed opportunities, employment, money, and the guilt of letting family members down because of a damage done that can never be repaired, are all incorporated into Erik’s character, and are all revealed in small doses as the dinner continues. He’s haunted by the thought that he could have been in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He was in New York that day, but the observation deck wouldn’t be open until 9:30, so he bought coffee and donuts at a place a block or two away to pass the time.
But it’s the theme of money for this lower-middle class character that continues to raise its ugly head. “It never ends,” dad remarks, referring to the ever-continuing list of monthly payments that rob him and Diedre of ever being able to save. “Mortgage, car payments, internet. Our dishwasher just gave out.” The comment may come as a mere conversational passing remark, but when it’s a theme that continually surfaces, you know there’s a major problem troubling the man, and it won’t quit. “Whatever gifts God has given us, in the end, no matter who you are, everything you have, goes.”
There’s an overwhelming guilt that Erik carries. He talks of dreams that plague him, and now it appears that thoughts from those dreams are spilling into the real world. And it’s here where the ambiguity of the play’s final minutes may divide.
In the way that Momo’s horrific dementia is making her disappear into herself, there’s an enveloping darkness that’s creeping into Erik’s life, suggested by an almost curious supernatural force that causes pots and pans down in the kitchen to suddenly fall to the floor, light bulbs to extinguish, and a door that slowly shuts, seemingly on its own accord. Eventually we’ll discover what it was Erik was thinking in that opening moment on the landing, and, like his mother’s disease, there’ll be no cure. But there’s a suggestion of love that always surfaces among the family, where any tragedy is overcome when the Blakes help each other, and it’s that unspoken feeling of hope, no matter how slim, that leaves the theatre with you. As the title suggests, they’re only humans, after all.
The National Touring production of The Humans continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3
Pictures Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes