The not-so-ordinary ‘The Humans’ dives deep into fears, anxieties

On the surface, “The Humans” seems so ordinary. But the Tony Award winner for Best Play in 2016 is not at all. Deeply layered and thought-provoking, there seems to be as many interpretations as there are audience members.

Director Steve Woolf cagily staged it on The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage to present a seemingly normal family gathering for Thanksgiving.  However, the Blakes’ Hallmark card snapshot might not be so typical this year. Pry underneath, and the complications suit a Margaret Mead anthropological study.

Playwright Stephen Karam uses the Thanksgiving holiday feast as a testament to family bonds and American traditions, and this Irish-Catholic brood incorporates prayers and blessings, fondly remembering previous special occasions.

But this year, they have traveled from the family homestead in Scranton, Pa., to youngest daughter Brigid’s shabby but spacious duplex apartment in NYC’s Chinatown. She just moved in with her genial boyfriend Richard Saad (Fajer Kaisi).

Scenic designer Gianni Downs’ has created a shrewdly conspicuous two-story set, where windows and doors are sources of anxieties and tension. The meager furnishings accurately depict the struggling finances of a musician and grad student, with card tables and folding chairs, decorated with bargain paper supplies, standing in for the iconic holiday Norman Rockwell magazine cover.

Woolf purposely doesn’t make maneuvering upstairs and downstairs easy. Scenes are conducted simultaneously, creating a distinct sense of place.

Rob Denton’s lighting design and Rusty Wandall’s sound design are both marvels of moods and unsettling incidents. Their precise insertion adds much to the apprehension.

Everybody has money problems. Agitations, indignities pile up. An undercurrent of dread, like water simmering before a full rolling boil, is palpable. 9-11 affected them, and they haven’t quite gotten over that fact. Nevertheless, humor pops up, too.

As the family interacts, Karam deftly touches on our basic fears of poverty, ill health, loss of love, old age, death and even criticism.

Mom Deirdre is not counting her Weight Watchers points because it’s the holiday, but she seems really stressed. Is it caretaking for Momo? Carol Schultz projects a well-meaning but fretful wife and mother with aplomb.

Dad Erik is going for another beer. He’s quick with quips, anecdotes and opinions, but he confesses he’s been having nightmares. One of the Rep’s best leading men, Brian Dykstra (“Red,” “All the Way”) plays the patriarch like an animal, backed into a corner, who reveals some unpleasant truths. He appears to have made peace with them. But has he?

Oldest daughter Aimee, still smarting from a break-up, is being dropped from her law firm. The remarkable Kathleen Wise demonstrates both the character’s strength and her fragility.

The wondrous Darrie Lawrence slyly plays Fiona “Momo” Blake, stricken with dementia and in a wheelchair. In this most challenging and difficult role, Lawrence must appear to nap for most of the show.

As Brigid, Lauren Marcus is fidgety, nervous about hosting her first Thanksgiving meal. But she doesn’t hold back on any topic. As her boyfriend Richard, Kaisi, the outsider, provides good insights.

Wise and Marcus act like caring, concerned sisters, and worried about their mom, gang up on her. Their own dramas consume them, threatening to set them back.

Food is a centerpiece to festive occasions, here it defines customs, lifestyles and battlegrounds. Brigid has added rainbow chard salad to the dinner menu — seemingly innocuous, but is there something more to look for here?

Like a Robert Altman movie from the 1970s and 1980s, dialogue and sound overlap. The shorthand that families share is evident, a natural flow that relatives exhibit.

The cast is at ease with each other, conveying the ties that bind, but the actors quickly switch to defense mechanisms when barbs get pointed and jabs take on an accusatory tone. This ensemble is a sly, nimble one, where everyone does seem a part of this clan.

But is this it? Why is the sound so specific, and at times, ominous? Are we to realize a bigger picture? Cue the “Twilight Zone” music.

I theorized two-thirds in, but my companions at first were stunned to hear what I thought happened. But then one friend took it further, fleshing out an alternative conclusion that equally made sense to me.

I can’t say because I’ll give too much away.

But maybe that’s what Karam wants us to think. We zig, he zags, and then we start piecing clues together.

Or it could just be about people trying to do the best they can, living their lives in some sort of meaningful way, forging on, and leaving an imprint. Maybe they conquer the demons, maybe they learn to co-exist.

The family ritual takes on deeper layers and overtones if you allow yourself to strip away what’s not important.

Oh, “The Humans” can be frustrating, perplexing and mysterious. But the acting is beautifully calibrated and the developments possibly extraordinary in it intriguing but mundane framework.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presented “The Humans” Feb. 7 through March 4. You want to talk about your theory? We’re all ears.

Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.


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