As a family man of a certain age, I wondered at times during this one-act drama if playwright Stephen Karam was chronicling the trials and tribulation of my own family — dealing with young adult children not making their own way in crappy apartments New York City, life-threatening and painful sickness, derailed careers, financial hardship, wrecked marriages, gay lifestyles, religion, living in sin, caring for demented parents, and light bulbs that burn out at the most inopportune times.
Then, I realized—or at least assumed—these are some of the all-too-common life problems that we all face and bring with us as we gather around the folding card table to give thanks for what we do have. Yeah, right.
Cynicism is about the only ugly emotion not overtly served in this Broadway play that won a Tony for Best Play in 2016, but then the conflicting interpersonal bounty with side dishes of bad luck and changing morality leaves a distinctly dismal aftertaste. But…
Don’t let the fear of facing family issues at Thanksgiving keep you from seeing The Humans. It is a wonderfully painful drama that every American should see, and Tryon Little Theater is highly commended for tackling so well a play of such emotional depth and insight. Please, go see it, if no other reason than to be truly thankful that you aren’t a member of the Blake family, sitting around in the dark crying and listening to the old Chinese woman upstairs bang about washing her clothes.
The Blake family has come together in Brigid and her boyfriend Richard’s Chinatown apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanks to Set Designer Jill Alexander, the two-story apartment is a spot-on dingy example of New York City living. The underemployed young couple has recently moved in and are glad to have found affordable housing, but by middle-class suburban standards, it is woefully lacking: sparse hand-me-down furniture, bars on the only window that faces an alley, grimy outlines on the walls where pictures once were, and the intruding sounds of the city and neighbors. And, a bare bulb goes out.
Brigid, played by Ellie Booth, is the younger of the two adult daughters, and she is living with Richard, played by Lucas Laughter. The other daughter Aimee, played by Lori Lee, has arrived, minus her long-time lesbian significant-other. She is also suffering from a chronic intestinal disease and has been taken off the partner-to-be list at the law firm where she works. Dad Eric, played by Doug Denton, and wife Dierdre, played by Donna Everett, have driven from Scranton, PA, with wheelchair-bound and demented Momo, his elderly mother, played by Mollie Turner. There’s an air of panic and paranoia about him; she is defensive and overly appeasing; and Momo slumps and mumbles. And, another light goes out.
The strength of this play is its ability to relate to nearly everyone. You might not have experienced all of the issues facing the Blakes, but you’ve probably endured at least a few—especially the annual coming together in hopes of a perfect family Thanksgiving and the all-too-common family meltdown as the result of mixing idyllic expectations with harsh realities. But the characters are the key to the play’s success, and these actors had to dig deep into their own hearts, minds, and souls to connect the audience to the life lessons that are hard fought here. Director Joel T. Perkin is blessed to have this combination of cast and play.
All of the local actors do a fine job in The Humans, but two caught my attention as exceptional: Booth as younger daughter Brigid and Denton as her father Eric. From the very beginning Eric is a man with something that needs to be said and something he would like to hide. Denton’s subtle mannerisms peg Eric as a broken man trying to hold the pieces of his life together with as much dignity as he could muster. Even when his sins are revealed, we give him a pass because his remorse is overwhelming. To portray such a flawed character and establish audience empathy is a treasured talent for Denton.
Booth represents her generation almost too perfectly in the character of Brigid. I am greatly impressed that Booth is only 16 years old and has the acting ability to layer Brigid’s personality traits so effortlessly. As a Gen Zer or Millennial, Brigid is guilty of loving and tolerating her family at the same time. She is trying hard, but she has turned a page in her life while her parents are still reading from family Bible. Again and again, the subtle traits of growing up and away from her parents require grace, resilience, self-assurance, and, above all, unequivocal love, and all are compounded by Booth. We should all watch her for complex roles yet to come.
In addition to its Best Play Tony, The Humans won a slew of other awards: four Tonys, four Drama Desks, two Obies, one Drama League, one Outer Critics Circle, one New York Drama Critics Circle, and it almost won a Pulitzer. It has the earned credentials rightfully so.
Amid the unrelenting tragic circumstances, there are small and very important glimmers of happiness. There are even a few moments of laughter that we grab at like lifesaving straws. This is not a happy play, and the ending is almost too much to endure. As lovers of the stage and the art of theatre, we must reflect on what it means to be human among others of our kind. We are not alone, but we are imperfect and subject to the whims of fate. Even after the last light bulb goes dark, we must find our own reflections in these characters and their circumstances, and understand that life goes on. It helps to have family because they will love you no matter what. Happy Thanksgiving.
The Humans is at Tryon Little Theater, 516 S. Trade St. in Tryon through Sunday, November 24. Tickets are available at www.tltinfo.org or call (828) 859-2466.