Thursday 29 March 2018

The Humans is a bittersweet family Thanksgiving reunion
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Aboriginal American Thanksgiving paintings almost always show images of pointy-hatted Massachusetts Puritans swapping turkeys for sweet corn with the local Algonquin natives. This chummy scenario is central to the USA "exceptionalist" mythos. And fact is the last week in November has the heaviest annual air traffic volume in the States : "Come home for Thanksgiving!" is a national compulsory ritual. 

To spice up all holiday dinners, what families don't have a litany of grievances and dirty little secrets they can't help but share at such gatherings? Playwright Stephen Karam doubled down on this point by naming it The Humans -- plural and inclusive -- rather than the more obvious title of The Family. 

All members of the Blake clan stare off into space as if hoping, vainly, that some new guiding light will deliver them back to their more innocent days of yesteryear.
Photo credit : David Cooper
The above facts, in juxtaposition, are the stuff of this show. Its setting is a post-9/11, post-Hurricane Sandy sub-basement flood-clean-up re-do : a NYC Chinatown apartment that was knee-deep in sludge in 2012. It has a spiral staircase up to the 2nd-floor basement level.

Together Karam describes the apartment -- with its clamourous next door laundry room, a murderous trash compactor and some wee critters skittering across the floor -- as "effortlessly uncanny". Outside, the Local 6 Train to Canal Street clatters by as if mere inches away. Strange haunting thuds thunder down, intermittently, from the flat above them.

How it's all put together : In but 100 minutes of drama in one act The Humans is a slice-of-life snatch of the loving Blake family. Thanksgiving finds their habitual Erin go Bragh! funnin' back-&-forth limned with entropy -- life's inevitable decline into nothingness. It's as if "blake" is but the future past-tense of "bleak" here.

Mid-20's daughter Brigid and 38-year-old south asian boyfriend Richard have just moved in together a few scant blocks from Ground Zero. Her post-grad dreams of a music career are in descrescendo despite her Ivy League pedigree from Brown University next door in Rhode Island. She bartends at two joints to nudge down her student debt (that under U.S. law cannot be dodged even by declaring bankruptcy). 

Richard is a perpetual master's degree student in social work who fights bouts of depression. Still, he has his Nana's trust fund to look forward to shortly when he turns 40.

Sister Aimee is a lawyer from Philly. But she suffers raging ulcerative colitis and has just been bumped off the firm's partner-track due to her constant sick days. She not only faces imminent "dehiring" at work : to boot, her longtime soulmate Carol has just dumped her and is dating other gals. Aimee tries gamely to mock her sorry state, but her laughter is like thin gravy for sure. 

For their part, parents Erik and Deidre have driven the 125 miles from Scranton, PA's rustbelt to NYC in the snow to celebrate Brigid & Richard's new digs. They've brought with them his mother, Momo, who's in a wheelchair with Stage 4 dementia. Dad's been a maintenance / facilities manager at Scranton Catholic High School for nearly 30 years. His pension is iffy and he's hitting the beers with undue gusto this day. Mom's a do-gooder in the best sense : her latest church gig is helping Bhutanese refugees settle in. She blithely makes plans to invite them all over to sing Christmas carols a month after Black Friday. 

Production values that enhance the show : The set by Drew Facey is compelling. From the chipped paint to the 50's circular ceiling lights to the 100 amp circuit board protruding its functional ugliness, this is Dylan's subterranean homesick blues brought up to date. Both Adrian Muir's sketchy short-circuity lighting effects and David Mesiha's heart-of-Manhattan soundscape add terrific mood.

Daughter Aimee makes a vehement lawyerly point as the Thanksgiving dinner at her sister's apartment in Chinatown begins to fray around the edges.
Photo credit : David Cooper
Acting pin spots : Dad Erik (Kevin McNulty) and mom Deidre (Nicola Lipman) yield up the most heartrending performances on the night as their tightly-wound world of 40 years unravels before them. Nothing like generous doses of ethanol, good ol' Christian guilt given full voice and the sheer inevitability of karma ultimately visiting this family, like all of ours, for better or for worse. Still, Erik pleads out to them each & all over the night, self-in-the-mirror included: "It's all okay. It's okay, isn't it? It'll all be okay. It's okay...".

Nightmares of delivering Aimee to a paralegal job interview at the Twin towers on 9/11 -- she fresh out of high school -- still haunt Dad, yes, but fresher nightmares a decade down the road haunt worse. And wife Deidre won't let him forget them for a second : any grace being preached by Father Quinn in Scranton is falling on deaf ears as far as she's concerned. She prays for herself, not the infidel.

Aimee (Briana Buckmaster) does a marvelous job being a loving teasing older sister to Brigid (Samantha Rose Richard). She's family mediator as well -- at least until Dad drops his guard and all his pretences and Mom can but weep at his visceral betrayal. There is likely little light at the end of the Blake family tunnel. Not soon. But ultimately, little doubt. Because family will out. Despite ad hoc pissy and scarring incidents. Even this bunch -- because they do, ultimately, love one another dearly. And they're all the glue they've got.

Who gonna like :  This is life today for many if not most of middle America. Millennial kids and their parents who together suffer giant mal de vivre. Okay, not like being a Syrian refugee in a tent on the Turkish border. But the fabled American Dream certainly eludes both their reach and their grasp. The stuff of the long-gone and short-lived 50's world of Norman Rockwell isn't ripe for resurrection any day soon. 

Image borrowed from Norman Rockwell's Post Magazine archives.

What makes the script compelling is its ordinariness. Its commonplace themes. Its "it is what it is" melancholic fatalism offset by large helpings of humour and irony. They suggest that folks are still driven by faith and nostalgic hope in The Dream that the American middle class is brought up to believe in, regardless of true life pinches and bites or the oxymoron / paradox of a reality t.v. president. 

Stephen Karam is a voice on stage to be reckoned with. He may pull his punches with so much humour along-the-way that the pathos of the final scenes catches the audience a bit unprepared and unnerved in the result. Still. Utterly nuanced dialogue delivered by an excellent cast makes this an engaging and embracing, if slightly sorrowing, night out at the theatre. 

ParticularsScript by Stephen Karam. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Stanley Theatre on Granville @ 11th.  Run-time 100 minutes without intermission.  On until April 22nd, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Stephen Karam, Playwright.  Amiel Gladstone, Director. Drew Facey, Set Designer.  Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer. Alain Hamer, Assistant Costume Designer. Adrian Muir, Lighting Designer. David Mesiha, Sound Designer. Jan Hodgson, Stage Manager.  Peter Jotkus, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Briana Buckmaster (Aimee).  Nicola Lipman (Deidre). Kevin McNulty (Erik). Samantha Rose Richard (Brigid).  Parm Soor (Richard Saad).  Gina Stockdale (Momo). 


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