Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Humans is Filled with Real Life

There's been a lot made in the last year or so of people who have been left behind. 


Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Call them Trumpeters, or rednecks, or MAGAs, or hillbillies, or whatever you will - the stories of lower class white folks have been blowing up on screens, on pages, and now on stages.

The Humans, now playing in a quick stop at the Orpheum through February 18, is one of the better versions of this story that I've seen so far. Like Hillbilly Elegy or White Trash, The Humans succeeds in taking the story of white working class America and making it one that anyone can connect to. Erik and Dierdre Blake are aggressively "normal" citizens of Scranton, Pennsylvania, cattily undercutting the Big City at any opportunity when they go to visit their daughter Brigid for Thanksgiving at her new apartment in NYC. In tow are Brigid's sister Aimee, Brigid's live-in boyfriend Richard, and their Alzheimer-stricken grandmother Momo.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

There's not a lot to describe of action (as such) because The Humans doesn't really have any in the traditional sense. The entire show takes place on a delightfully split level set (brilliantly designed by David Zinn) that lets us peer directly into Brigid and Richard's apartment as events simultaneously unfold on two floors. The effect is one of cutting a home in half and greedily sopping up all of the interior family drama Kardashian-style - only the Blakes lead far more mundane lives. Aimee is a lonely lesbian whose long term partner left her and whose job is letting her go due to her chronic illness of ulcerative colitis. Brigid is a hardworking bartender and aspiring artist who struggles with her mental health in the wake of overwhelming student loan debt. Dierdre has toiled for decades at a thankless job that will never compensate her well for her work because she doesn't have a college degree. Momo is an ailing Alzheimer's patient whose fleeting grasp on reality is nearly nonexistent, and her care drags the whole family down. Richard seems a little driftless, a man who grew up knowing he would inherit wealth without any motivation to live life fully to use that wealth. And Erik is a recently fired, now penniless, clearly troubled husband and father whose steadfast veneer shatters as it is revealed that he is struggling to find his place in a world he fully unraveled on his own.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

That all may sound relatively banal - and it is I suppose - but The Humans never gets boring. The brilliance of the writing (it's easy to see how this scooped up Tony Awards) is that it catches you from the moment Erik and Dierdre enter the apartment and never lets you go. Like many other of my favorite shows (Dot is a great recent example), The Humans puts everyday life in a concentrated, elevated display of how beautiful the mundane can really be. We root for these characters; we anger at them. We wish them the best and lament their sadness and hope for better luck. Every one of them is richly drawn and a thoughtful representation of a portion of America. I do wish there was a little more diversity on this stage - Richard's part is a halfhearted attempt at this - but I also understand that not everything is going to be an easily arranged rainbow, and I still think this show has a lot of value. It is something that I think is better on stage than screen and is definitely worth physically attending; these actors are masterful and infuse such thought and care into their parts.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
The terrific acting begin with Richard Thomas as Erik, who beautifully portrays the most wholehearted middle American dad I can think of. Erik reminded me so much of many of the Midwestern fathers I grew up around, and his care for his daughters and devastating inability to unleash emotional vulnerability is deeply familiar to me. Thomas is really extraordinary in this role (even better than his work on the oft-overlooked The Americans - but for real if you're not watching this show you need to be), and he's really worth seeing. Pamela Reed is wonderful as Erik's wife Dierdre. Reed manages to encompass many stereotypes in her role without ever making them a cliche, and the big reveal of her heartache at the end of the show is a tough one. Reed is a true onion on stage, peeling off layer after layer of Dierdre and making her far more than just another halfhearted mom role. It's a brilliant performance that will leave you simultaneously surprised and dismayed.

Daisy Eagan and Therese Plaehn share great chemistry as sisters Brigid and Aimee. Eagan delivers a pointedly millennial performance, and audience members vocally reacted to her rants against student loan debts and eschewing religious practice or association. Plaehn was a lovely surprise as the relatively quiet Aimee. She shares her story in pieces and with feeling, and her performance really makes you ache over lost opportunities. Although she never has true "lines," Lauren Klein is stunning as Momo. Her disappearance into late stage Alzheimers is as astonishing as it is heartbreaking, and her visceral performance moved me deeply. Luis Vega is probably the cast's weakest link as Richard. He struggles to find true chemistry with Eagan and feels a little flat, but he does generate a stark contrast to the tense vivacity of the Blake family, a necessary ballast in the play's direction.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Costumes (by Sarah Laux) are everyday wear that anyone would put on for a casual family holiday dinner, and not much to speak of. The set (as already mentioned) is brilliant, and although plain it really lays the backdrop for the show's mundane events. I found the lighting design by Justin Townsend to be really stunning, and I was fascinated with his generous use of silhouette and shadow. The detailed sound design by Fitz Patton lends an unexpectedly eerie quality to the drama and had me thoroughly convinced that an appearance by a Guilllermo del Toro-style monster was coming before the end (spoiler alert: no monsters here). Overall the production design is straightforward but well kept, much like the Blakes themselves, and I enjoyed how it was laid out.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

I'm loving this series of bringing Broadway-caliber plays to the tours that grace our cities each year. I love musicals (as we all know), but it's also great to get the chance to see fine acting and fresh, vital contemporary writing in action in a straightforward drama. The Humans is a great example of both, and it will take your whole heart with you once it closes. I'd definitely enjoy seeing this again - maybe a local company can get their hands on the script and do a Minnesotan version? Either way, it's worth a trip to the Orpheum to see. Check it out by clicking here to find tickets or more information, and make sure to visit before it closes on February 18.