As the holiday season approaches, for those with families it is often a time of dread, because we cannot escape the inherent dysfunctions that are readily apparent at the requisite gatherings. There's no escape from it, because everyone is neurotic (or worse) to a certain degree, and family dynamics necessarily reflect the confluence of these idiosyncrasies, neuroses, compulsions, and, in some cases, psychoses.
|(L to R) Susannah McLeod as Aimee, Kevin Hart as Erik, (front) Kathryn Gray as Fiona,|
Anne F. Butler as Deidre, Anastasia Davidson as Brigid, and Antonio Amadeo as Richard
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the regional premiere of Stephen Karam's The Humans—which garnered the 2016 Tony for Best Play, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama—we are surrounded by a series of quintessential quirky traits, vulnerabilities, and frailties that are, as the title indicates, part of the human condition.
As the members of the Blake family—grandmother, Fiona "Momo" Blake (Kathryn Gray); her son, Erik Blake (Kevin Hart); his wife, Deirdre Blake (Anne F. Butler); their daughters, Aimee (Susannah McLeod) and Brigid (Anastasia Davidson) Blake; and Brigid's boyfriend, Richard Saad (Antonio Amadeo)—prepare to sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner in Brigid and Richard's recently obtained run-down duplex rental in Manhattan's Chinatown, we are treated to a rapid-fire series of events that familiarize us with a pantheon of familial travails which, in their quick accumulation, would make for a great farce, if they didn't all hit so close to home and reveal some unaddressed darkness, particularly with Erik.
Hart's incremental revelations of Erik's subconscious disturbances, which finally boil over into the central catharsis of the story, are masterful, providing a visceral, alchemical climax that rises, both literally and figuratively, from the basement. Erik's revelations, in the second act, completely change our perception of Deidre's coping mechanisms. Deidre and Erik may be from Scranton, but they dish it like true New Yorkers. Butler's deadpan barbs are especially prickly (and delicious in a Bronx-type fashion).
|Kevin Hart as Erik|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Both Erik and Deidre attend to Fiona, who is suffering from a form of dimentia. The most striking aspects of this cruel disease are the rare moments of lucidity, or the emotional outbursts that reflect the subtext of a given situation. Gray's verisimilatude to the actual pathology is both touching and compelling in its punctuation of these moments.
Aimee, the oldest daughter, is the shining star in the family's upward mobility across three generations, once-removed from Ireland—but at a cost. McLeod's balance in navigating Aimee's high-wire act is elegant and impactful, revealing a razor-sharp legal mind as well as intense physical suffering. Brigid is just beginning her career, fresh out of art school, challenged by her advisor's assessment of her work and her boyfriend's organizational regimentation, coloring life within the lines, if you will. Davidson's emotional transparency makes Brigid the ever-present heart-centered keel of the story. Richard is her left-brain ballast. Davidson and Amadeo's yin-yang, anima-animus, opposites attract chemistry works to a "T", with Amadeo providing Richard with a steady, thoughtful, and emotionally engaged presence throughout.
|(L to R) Susannah McLeod as Aimee,|
Kevin Hart as Erik, and Anastasia Davidson as Brigid
Photo: Michael Ensminger
One of the unexpected delights of the production is the apartment building's noisy atmospherics—the loud thumps from the upstairs apartment; a sudden clamor from the laundry room; the jolting drone and cycle of the trash compactor—which also serve to underscore the psychological undercurrents of the action. This is particularly dramatic in the last scene, when Erik is in the basement, wrestling with his demons; however, after the release of his emotional burden, the script calls for him to enter the basement hallway lit by a fluorescent light (which, in our experience, generally produces a harsh and cold 60-cycle effect, as in Edward Hopper's famous painting of a diner, "Nighthawks"). Instead, the light appears to be a warm incandescent glow, and so reminds us of a number of climactic scenes where the protagonist enters a bright, welcoming light to transition into the next life; thus, leaving us with a different impression than the playwright intended, where Erik should be emerging into an unnaturally lit gritty hallway that resembles a tunnel.
Despite this one wrinkle, in director Dee Covington's fine-tuned, well-timed, and deftly nuanced production, we never are never far from the core value that keeps this family afloat—their unconditional love for one another. Indeed, this is what makes this dark comedy a thoughtful choice for the holidays.
Curious Theatre Company's regional premiere of The Humans, by Stephen Karam, runs through December 22nd. For tickets: curioustheatre.org.