Every character in The Humans means well and is terrible. They experience empathy and habitual selfishness alike. Peel back the thinnest veneer of small talk and no one is even close to okay. In other words, they are an American family. This particular family in Seattle Repertory Theatre's new production of the Tony Award–winning Stephen Karam play suffers under a modern sort of post-9/11, post-recession pall, one of rampant existential dread and crippling uncertainty.
Sounds like some wholesome holiday fun, right? Don't be thwarted. This marvelously acted 90 minutes feels vital in a time when we're all starting to sense an expiration date on longstanding systems (financial mobility, political norms, the environment). Plus, it brings the laughs.
Directed by Joe Mantello as part of the official Broadway national tour, The Humans tells the story of the Blakes–a middle class family from Pennsylvania—who share Thanksgiving dinner with the youngest daughter and her boyfriend at the couple's New York City apartment. Awkward Holiday Dinners Between Disparate Generations could be its own Netflix genre, but from start to finish the production and performances feel keenly observed, imbued with unique specificity.
Take the set, for instance. I've lived in that apartment. I recognize that fridge, the off-white walls painted too thick, the plastic trash can that's just a little too big for the bag, the weird bed nook in lieu of a bed room, the way it feels like a luxurious space (two rooms!) until someone with an actual house visits and asks why there isn't a window in the bathroom, the annoying and occasionally ominous noises from the upstairs neighbor.
You'll recognize the family too. From the working class dad with bad jeans and a knack for entering rooms by way of interruption (Richard Thomas) to the artistic—read: financially struggling— youngest sister (Daisy Eagan) and her earnest grad student boyfriend who likes to make lists (Luis Vega). These are people we know. But The Humans finds ways to thwart expectations of how this sort of family rendezvous should go, and in doing so create an immediate sense of claustrophobic disorder.
In another version of the Family Holiday Dinner trope, an older sister/lawyer character might be the busybody looking down her nose at kid sister's life choices. But here, Aimee (Therese Plaehn) carries both heartbreak and a gastrointestinal disorder, floating around the apartment as a sort of looming pestilence. The father/boyfriend dynamic also surprises in this way. Instead of old school Erik Blake dressing down the beta male, overeducated Richard—it's the boyfriend's enthusiasm and over-interest in everything Erik has to say that ends up being the oppressive force. Momo (Lauren Klein)—the wheelchair-bound, dementia-ridden matriarch—mumbles about home in the background. Deirdre (the mother, played by Pamela Reed) keeps drinking. And why can't Dad sleep?
There is a big secret to be unveiled, yes. But that's not what's rotten at the core of this family. Each arrive at the Thanksgiving dinner table already born or adopted into a modern America where no path is certain, where fear of loss supplants hope for the future, where they can't go back. They lash out at and come to the defense of each other because everyone is broken equally. The little family traditions around the holidays, traditions born from an older time before the country plateaued, are the centering force, the superstitious talismans. Outside, the unknown.
It's enough to keep you up at night.
Thru Dec 17, Seattle Repertory Theatre