The Humans at the Ahmanson

A Theatre Review by Keri Tombazian

June 25, 2018

Every minute of every day battles are waged for all to see on screens large and small.  Tweets fly, three-sentence posts are quickly buried beneath a mass of comment-laden threads, articles are sent like little missiles of righteous indignation.  Who among us has no sense that this endless time and personal equity spent in the exterior of social media is chipping away at real life lived in the interior of homes; the one between lovers, spouses, children, neighbors - humans - living three-dimensional lives, navigating the landscape of flesh and blood humanity.

Steven Karam’s The Humans teems with life-interior: ninety uninterrupted minutes in the life of the Blake family, gathered for Thanksgiving dinner in the dollhouse ground-floor duplex apartment of the youngest daughter and her boyfriend in Chinatown, New York.  There are no device-screens to buffer the barbs slung, nor lessen the love lavished between the Blakes.  The floors of the dingy home shake under the stomping of an upstairs neighbor while old emotional walls between family members tremble as they slog through the goo of fear, love, regret, courage.  The opening night Ahmanson audience could barely wait until the end to leap to our feet in ovation.  Try not to read long descriptions of the plot before you see The Humans; let it unfold before you.

In conversation with Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D., playwright Karam notes that the existential human fears of poverty, sickness, loss of love, led him to write a “family thriller.”  Indeed, elements of unexplained bumps-in-the-night set the entire piece on edge.  In a deft turn of writing, Karam holds the father’s secret roiling under until the last possible moment.  The genius of Karam’s 2016 Tony award winning play is allowing the common human experience to be enough.  He doesn’t embellish, and it is breathtaking.

Originating the role of the father, Erik Blake, Reed Birney’s Tony award was won in a complex rendering of a man all at once deflated, yet still owning a remnant ember of hope and a wisp of courage.  His Tony winning counter-part Jayne Houdyshell is plain bloody dear as long-suffering Deirdre Blake, annoying as hell with her overcompensating attempts at care, stunning in her stoic role as the glue of the family. 

There is an authentic life-lived together quality between the siblings, Aimee (Cassie Beck) and Brigid (Sarah Steele).   Beck’s performance is heartbreaking, as Aimee bears up under both physical and emotional pain with not a shred of self-pity even as she dives headfirst into a pool of fear.  Brigid is a study in bound-up woe, wrapped in a blanket of optimism.  Steele walks that line with precision.  She is met with equal specificity in Nick Mills’ performance as her boyfriend, Richard Saad whose desire to be understood and to understand makes for some of the funniest moments of the play.  The surprise of the night was walking away realizing that Mills was not only likeable but loveable; no easy trick.

Finally, anyone who has ever been in the presence of a person suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease will be among the first to shout, “bravo,” as Lauren Klein takes her bow.  Klein brings the full measure of Grandma Momo’s chaos of mind without slipping into a caricature of dementia.

This will not be the first nor the last time it is said that this cast has set the bar at a rarely achieved height and the Ahmanson is blessed to host them. 

David Zinn’s scenic design is spot on true to the description in the book of the play.  Sound design was crucial to the effect of the piece and Fitz Patton did not disappoint.  Lighting design by Justin Townsend was like another character in the play – entering and exiting – throwing light and shadow like lines of dialogue. This show is too good to miss; don’t. The Humans runs through July 29th. Get your tickets here.