Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The feeling of looking at the peculiarities of our species with an almost clinical perspective is peppered with a treasure trove of humor, poignancy, and harsh truth in Stephen Karam's Tony Award winning play The Humans, now mounted in a splendid production by Park Square Theatre. The occasion of the play marries two of our most salient American traditions: Thanksgiving dinner and passing down the duties of hosting family gatherings from a generation of parents to their now adult children. These two concurrent rites take place in a bare-bones two story basement apartment in New York City's Chinatown, the two levels connected by a tightly twisted spiral staircase revealed, in Erik Paulson's spectacular set, in cutaway manner, so that we truly see a "slice of life," floor joists and all.
Erik and Deirdre Blake have driven from the Scranton, Pennsylvania, home where they raised two daughters into Manhattan, along with Erik's mother, whom they call Momo, and who now lives with them as she glides ever more deeply into dementia, into the city where daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard Saad have picked up the mantle as holiday hosts. Brigid is an aspiring musician, biding time waiting on tables, while Richard is a graduate student in social work. The other Blake daughter, Aimee, is an attorney. She has taken the train up from her home in Philadelphia, though without her long-time partner, who recently broke of their relationship.
Brigid and Richard just moved into the roomy apartment, their first together. They are excited about it despite a variety of loud and strange noises that enter the space, and the shortage of windows. Brigid points out that in New York you give up sunlight for space. The movers have been delayed, so their dinner is being served on paper plates, eaten on folding tables and chairs, adding to a sense of family dynamics being stripped to the basics. There are amusing efforts to maintain beloved customs, though the strain of adapting these to constant change is felt. Everyone tries to avoid unpleasant subjects–after all, it's a holiday, a time to give thanks. Still, unpleasantness does surface. Why should the Blake family be different from most others?
The Humans is one of the rare Broadway plays of recent decades to launch a national tour, which had a week-long run at the Orpheum several years ago. While that production was excellent, the play works even better in the intimate environs of Park Square's Proscenium Stage, where we truly experience the closed-in feel of this basement domicile. Director Lily Tung Crystal maintains a steady flow of the interactions, sometimes simultaneously on the apartment's two levels, capturing a family trying to nurture and express devotion for one another while striving to avoid opening past wounds and dodge forbidden topics, such as Diedre's insistence that she will not push her Catholicism on her adult girls, even though she did bring a statue of the Virgin Mary as a housewarming gift. As families are wont to do, present company splits off into twos or threes who then discuss the others in hushed tones meant to infer their good intentions. Along with provoking frequent laughter, Karam embroiders these characters with lovely touches, such as Brigid calling her father "big guy," and grating ones, as in Dierdre's inability to refrain from repeating the obvious, that Brigid and Richard are cohabitating absent the sanctity of marriage.
All this leads, in the play's 95 minutes, without intermission, after much drinking, reminiscing, teasing and truth-telling, to a surprising turn. The final minutes of the play take a very different tone as one of the characters dares to break out of the familiar scaffold of their constructed lives. We won't know where it leads–unless playwright Karam has a sequel in mind–but just the act of taking a chance, stepping into a long-avoided corridor of uncertainty, is both chilling and inspiring.
Everyone in the cast does top drawer work. John Middleton, as Erik Blake, and Charity Jones as his wife Diedre are both fine actors who can be expected to give excellent performances, but being that they are married in real life, they bring an additional sheen of being in sync with one another, an ability to anticipate the other's words or actions and therefor have a response always at the ready that feels completely true and not staged.
Dexieng "Dae" Yang as Brigid and Laura Anderson as Aimee bring vibrant authenticity to their strong bond as sisters, and to the complicated relationship each has with their parents and the parental expectations always hovering above them. Darrick Mosley brings chipper enthusiasm, with an eagerness to please, to his performance as Richard. As Momo, Angela Timberman makes the most of the limited sections of the play when she is not in a stupor, or crying out random words and phrases that convey no meaning but are nonetheless foreboding.
The soundscape of the apartment, with noise coming from outside on the street and from within the bowels of the building, plumbing that seems to feel a need to announce its every act, the whirring of kitchen appliances, and an intrusively heavy-footed upstairs neighbor, is a significant part of the play, and masterfully produced by sound designer Katherine Horowitz. Karin Olson's lighting design aptly depicts the shortening days and darkening sky of late November, as seen through the apartment's lone window, along with the pools of shadow and light within the subterranean home. Matthew LeFebvre's costumes and Andrea Moriarity's wigs reflect each character's personality and life history.
Park Square has given a fair amount of press to the fact that the daughters, Aimee and Brigid, in this production are both played by Asian-American actors, considering them to be Korean adoptees. The text has not been altered in any way to reflect this. Director Crystal has stated that an important consideration is representation of all types of families, including interracial adoptions, and that certainly has merit. If anything feels changed in the play for me as a result, it may be that the bond between the sisters comes across as stronger than I remember it being in the touring production, as if there is something more shared between them, and not with their parents, that affects the family dynamics. That Deidre and Erik chose interracial adoption as the means of creating their family does, ever so slightly, add to their humanity–even more so, because it never needs to be stated. Aimee and Brigid are their daughters, not their adopted daughters, which attests to the love that is underlying everything else the family faces.
The Humans is an outstanding play that will make you laugh heartily while recognizing the foibles common to our species. It evokes deep feeling without being overly dramatic, but merely real. Park Square has given a shining, faultless staging to one of the best plays of the past decade, well worth seeing. Whether this is your first visit with the Blake family, or you have joined them before for their Thanksgiving dinner, The Humans is likely to leave you wanting to say grace.
The Humans runs through October 9, 2022, on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $40.00 55.00; students and educators, $16.00 in seating area 2; age 62 and up, $5.00 discount; age 30 and under, $21.00 tickets in seating area 2 (use code 30U); military(use code MIL), $10.00 discount. Rush tickets, $20.00 one hour before each performance, subject to availability. For tickets and information, please call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: Stephen Karam; Director: Lily Tung Crystal; Assistant Director: Roshni Desai; Set Design: Erik Paulson; Costume Design: Matthew Lefebvre; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: John Novak; Wig Design: Andrea Moriarity; Dramaturg: Katie Bradley; Music Director: Isabella Dawis; Intimacy Director: Shae Palic; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Em Friedman.
Cast: Laura Anderson (Aimee Blake), Charity Jones (Deirdre Blake), John Middleton (Erik Blake), Darrick Mosley (Richard Saad), Angela Timberman (Fiona "Momo" Blake), Dexieng "Dae" Yang (Brigid Blake).