SCHENECTADY – “The Humans” is 90-minutes long, without an intermission. For the first 75 minutes of the production it is a very funny play that touches on the serious issues of family life. For the final 15-minutes, it is powerful, heartbreaking theater that gives clarity to the entire play.
The ending forces you to understand that the jokes – often at the expense of a person’s flaws – might seem like awkward banter, but they really define the dynamics of the family’s relationship that developed over the years. The Blake’s are a family who love each other but cannot show it.
What makes the play so satisfying is that the family is not the horrible, hateful people American playwrights love to put on stage. In “The Humans” it is clear the young playwright Stephen Karam likes his characters, and it is equally clear that most of the time they like each other.
“The Humans”, which is at Proctors through Sunday, is terrific theater and this production makes you understand why it won the Tony Award for the Best Play of 2016.
It is a play that speaks to the fears that gnaw at every generation, yet does it in a way that is rarely preachy. Ultimately, it’s a sad play that accurately captures the despair of the lower-middle class. It is, to steal from Thoreau, a play about people who live lives of quiet desperation.
The work takes place in a rundown, two-level apartment in the Chinatown section of New York City. Eric and Dierdre arrive to share Thanksgiving with their daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard who have just moved into the apartment. Also there is their other daughter Aimee, who has recently lost her job and broken up with her long-time girlfriend. Eric and Dierdre have brought Eric’s mother Momo, who has dementia and who they care for.
That the potentially depressing situation is so filled with humor and affection is remarkable. Even though the jokes are often rooted in bitterness, they are rarely toxic and quickly forgiven. Indeed, for the audience who is yet to learn the depth of despair that affects Eric and Dierdre, it seems a slice of blue-collar life.
The performances are remarkable. Richard Thomas as Eric and Pamela Reed as Dierdre create finely etched characters, but it is their interaction as a couple that solidify the play. They capture what at first seems the physical exhaustion of a couple who have worked hard for no visible results. It is revealed that their relationship is equally exhausted - emotionally and spiritually.
The younger actors are also excellent. Daisy Eagan is Brigid, the woman who works two bartending jobs because, though trained as a musician, she cannot get a job in her chosen profession.
Therese Plaehn is Aimee suffers outwardly from an intestinal illness and internally by a future that might be without a job or someone to love. Luis Vega is Richard, the patient and caring outsider who has nothing in common with the family except for the mutual love of Brigid
Lauren Klein is unobtrusive as the demented Momo. However, the actress makes the most of her assignment to be the conscience of the play and, perhaps, a symbol of the isolation of everyone else in the performance.
It takes concentration to hear every word in the huge theater, but technically the work is great. The set is wonderful and the lighting becomes an additional character. Joe Mantello’s direction is absolutely brilliant.
“The Humans” is a play that is both funny and sad, but most of all it is an accurate rendering of a group of people in American society that have little hope for the future and must live with daily fears.
The Humans at Proctors through Saturday For tickets and information call 518-346-6204, or go to proctors.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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