Chicago Theater Review: THE HUMANS (American Theater Company)

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by Barnaby Hughes on November 19, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Playwright Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and his Speech and Debate—with its with crackling humor and vivacity—has some of the most believable, empathetic teenagers ever put on stage. American Theatre Company has an excellent track record for introducing new works. With histories like this, there’s a strange blend of expectation and doubt that fire will strike again at a world premiere. Fear not. A perfect conflagration arrived at ATC on Sunday with Karam’s The Humans. It is easily one of the most enjoyable productions of the season, one that we’re lucky to get before New York does.

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Once again, Karam proves himself to be a master of realism. He doesn’t give audiences a single reason to believe they’re watching a work of fiction rather than eavesdropping on a domestic gathering. At 90 intermissionless minutes, The Humans provides an intimate snapshot of the Blake family celebrating Thanksgiving. Brigid Blake has just moved into a dingy basement apartment in New York’s Chinatown with her much older boyfriend Richard. They’re joined by her Scranton, PA-based parents Erik and Deirdre, lesbian sister Aimee, and wheelchair-bound “Momo” Fiona. Throughout the course of the evening we discover all of the physical, emotional, and economic hardships that each member of the family suffers from. They have their family rituals, such as singing Momo’s favorite song, reciting the standard Catholic table blessing, and smashing a peppermint pig. We laugh with them and cry with them, but underneath the arguments and the teasing, the tensions and confessions, we sense the profound love that they have for one another.

Director P.J. Paparelli and the entire production team enhance Karam’s realism in many ways. Not only is the fourth wall never broken, the characters are so wholly absorbed with each other that they don’t need to face the audience. David Ferguson’s two-story set design helps by providing enough space that multiple scenes can occur at the same time. Add to that Brian Hoehne’s lighting and Patrick Bley’s sound design, and the building becomes as much a character as each of the Blakes, especially when the lights start going out. Intermittent banging from Brigid and Richard’s unseen upstairs neighbor heightens the disturbance and unease of the night’s proceedings. Production stage manager Amanda J. Davis juggles each of these complexities with ease.

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ATC’s talented ensemble cast work together so well that it’s hard to believe they’re not an actual family. Every sigh, every gesture, every joke is freighted with meaning. As perhaps a father should, Keith Kupferer as Erik Blake dominates the action. His towering presence, East Coast accent, and penchant for drink enliven the festivities. Hanna Dworkin’s Deirdre adds a strong dose of worry and religion. Catholics can especially appreciate the humor in her character’s comments.

As the family outsider, Lance Baker plays Richard awkward and aloof. He’s the one character we really feel like we don’t know. Yet his very aloofness allows him enough distance to remain the calm center around which the drama deftly unfolds. By contrast, Kelly O’Sullivan’s uptight Bridget never loosens up. Sadieh Rifai brings a rich complexity to her role as Aimee Blake, one that beautifully blends her character’s emotional vulnerability with lawyerly reasonableness. Aimee’s mediating presence steadies the family through its sometimes tense and turbulent relations. Finally, Jean Moran provides a focus for the family’s tender concern (and a colorful outburst of four-letter words) as the fading and fragile grandmother.

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As with the best holiday plays, The Humans transcends its seasonal setting by focusing more on people than on events. This is particularly evident in the title’s multiple meanings. On the surface, it refers explicitly to an anecdote Richard tells about aliens watching humans from outer space and thinking they look and act like monsters. As such, it seems to refer to the audience’s point of view. Perhaps more significantly, the title emphasizes the utter humanity of Karam’s characters. If The Humans rings true, it is not simply because we’ve experienced a Thanksgiving like the Blakes’, but because we are human like the Blakes.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Humans
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street
ends on December 21, 2014
EXTENDED to February 1, 2015
[on March 4, 2018, American Theater Company ceased operations; more on this story at Chicago Tribune]

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