Stephen Karam’s justly acclaimed play “The Humans” tells an emblematic story about the American middle class more persuasively than many a demographic chart or statistical analysis.
Much has been written about the imperiled American middle class. But Stephen Karam’s justly acclaimed play “The Humans” tells an emblematic story about this broad stratum of our society more persuasively than many a demographic chart or statistical analysis.
Homespun and spooky, tender and unsparing, this group portrait of an Irish American clan under pressure has earned a Tony Award and other accolades. The new Seattle Repertory Theatre production of the 2015 play has the same well-known director (Joe Mantello) as the Broadway version, but a mostly new cast that will tour with the show after its Seattle run.
Though the pacing seems a bit rushed, and the actors not yet as finely attuned to interpersonal nuances as the Broadway cast, the performances are committed and potent nonetheless.
By Stephen Karam. Through Dec. 17 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; tickets start at $17 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org)
“The Humans” is informed by the playwright’s own background as the son of a Rust Belt family. And it hangs on that perennial hook: the dysfunctional family holiday gathering, in this case a Thanksgiving dinner.
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However, Karam adds subtle new shades and textures to an old formula. Though the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks lingers at the edges, “The Humans” doesn’t directly reference current events. But it can’t help but bring to mind the election of a president who promised more prosperity to Americans like the play’s fictional Blake clan. And it compassionately (and sometimes hilariously) portrays both the keen disappointment and fraying pride of people trying very hard to keep their heads above water.
The stock market may be booming, but the Blakes are feeling a lot less stable and more anxious than the rising GDP suggests. Their work, love, housing, health and emotional problems are sometimes joked about, but are actually eating away at them.
The play opens as Scranton, Pennsylvania, couple Deidre (Pamela Reed) and Erik Blake (Richard Thomas) arrive at the bleak, semi-basement apartment of their composer daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan), in a gritty section of Manhattan’s Chinatown. (Bainbridge Island native David Zinn designed the meaningfully treacherous, bi-level set.) With elder daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a lawyer, and Brigid’s good-natured boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) also on hand, there’s a burst of frenetic activity and polyphonic rounds of humorous familial teasing and bickering that feel true to life.
Much of the joshing derives from generational frictions between devoutly Catholic, working stiff Midwestern parents, and their urban, unreligious daughters — the somewhat peevish Brigid, and Aimee, who covers recent losses with tart wit.
At first the sisters appear to live up to that American creed of each generation surpassing the previous one, financially and otherwise. Yet despite college educations and ambitions, success is elusive to both in a fiercely competitive, sink-or-swim culture.
Meanwhile, their parents are harboring their own sense of failure. This collective angst, and outbursts from Erik’s dementia-plagued mother, Momo (the uncannily believable Lauren Klein), may sound like awfully grim going in a 90-minute show.
But the Blakes often authentically use humor to fend off hopelessness. They also, as Aimee notes, handle adversity with “stoic sadness” — which may or may not be preferable to the spells of depression the more privileged Richard keeps at bay with pharmaceuticals and dabs of New Age spirituality.
Karam adds another layer, a misting of mystery, to “The Humans” that moves it toward a darkly wordless, yet not hopeless, climax.
Strange, loud knocks and bangs periodically erupt in Fitz Patton’s profoundly creepy sound design. Are they from an upstairs neighbor? An angry God? The harsh clatter and Justin Townsend’s disturbing lighting effects seem to absorb the changing mood of the play from sitcom-ish humor to raw pathos.
Yet Karam doesn’t victimize these people in his fugue of overlapping voices and existential hurt. They also have well-earned moments of connection. In a shared Irish blessing, loving gestures of caretaking and quiet moments of forgiveness, you see how the familial bonds are fragile, yet still essential. Which, in the end, is what most gives “The Humans” its humanity.