Why “The Humans” Will Leave You Feeling Vulnerable

Tony Award-winning play packs an emotional punch


Julieta Cervantes (Press Photo)

The Humans cast Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, and Luis Vega

Allison MacLeod, Associate Editor

After winning the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, “The Humans,” written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello, has arrived at the Shubert Theatre as part of its national tour.

In “The Humans,” the Blake family travels to New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving together at daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard’s new apartment. Bridgid is a musician who has yet to book any work in the city, and Aimee, the Blakes’ other daughter, practices law but feels discouraged by her chronic illness and recent breakup. Meanwhile, parents Erik and Dierdre care for Erik’s mother “Momo” who has dementia while they deal with their personal anxieties. Erik, played by Richard Thomas, seems to be struggling the most. He hasn’t been sleeping and needs to reveal something to his daughters.

The dinner conversation is filled with laughter and love but also delves into their struggles and fears. The subjects of discussion include religious morality, job insecurity, illness, tradition, relationships and even the post-9/11 world as well as the generational divide in the family’s perspectives.

It may be easier to focus on and resolve one conflict, but “The Humans” tackles many…

— Allison MacLeod

This 90-minute play is told in real time, so there are no blackouts, scene changes or intermissions. Conversations sometimes even occur upstairs and downstairs at the same time. The audience receives no respite from the emotions of the dinner. Instead, the experience is raw, as if the audience is attending the meal as well.

What makes the effect even more potent is that theatergoers will recognize all of the characters. All of the dialogue sounds as though someone you know could have said it. Witty yet compassionate Aimee, played by Therese Plaehn, and Dierdre with her motherly tough love, played by Pamela Reed, stood out as characters whose diction and tone felt particularly familiar. There’s comfort in recognizing such personal moments as shared human experience, but there’s also a vulnerability in watching them play out on stage.

Brigid and Richard’s bare apartment is perfectly versatile for this show. As they celebrate, the family can almost forget the rundown apartment until the buzz of the laundry room starts up, a comedic interruption to their conversation. In contrast, as the lights burn out, the empty rooms manifest the family’s fears, particularly Erik’s. Suddenly the city sounds, like pounding from the upstairs apartment, become eerie tokens of his distress. The set effectively creates a palpable terror.

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The sheer breadth of topics covered in this show, as well as their depth and complexity, is heavy to digest. Though not every subject is developed to its full potential, this range is one of the most powerful and human aspects of the show. Audiences can relate to the burdens as well as the recognition that life, and most importantly family, continues on. It may be easier to focus on and resolve one conflict, but “The Humans” tackles many, just as people must do every day.

For theatergoers who are looking for a colorful happy ending, this is not the show. However, let that be a stimulant, not a deterrent, because “The Humans” offers a different experience that everyone needs. It is thought-provoking and beautifully real in its portrayal of the American family.

“The Humans” is now playing at the Shubert Theatre in Boston through March 25. For ticket information, visit the online box office: http://www.bochcenter.org/thehumans