If you wanted to study a species in its natural habitat, you might create a diorama and move in the most concentrated grouping of that species. A pride of lions. A prickle of porcupines. An extended human family. Then you’d want to observe the group in a natural setting where all members are together. Thanksgiving, say.
In Humans, playwright Stephen Karam populates a two-story diorama with a human family, plus a new potential member, minus a long-time presence. He has them prepare a Thanksgiving dinner as way of exploring what makes humans human: how we express joy and anguish, cope with sickness and betrayal, and pick at those we inevitably love and despise.
None of the three generations here are living better lives than their parents; no one’s doing all that well. One character asks, “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Well, sure. But, as Humans makes clear, it doesn’t.
The show, moved almost completely intact from Broadway, including director Joe Mantello, opens and closes with the father, Eric Blake (Reed Birney) alone on the stage, grappling with his role as ostensible head of the family. In between, his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) and daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) challenge him for his title. Both Birney and Houdyshell won Tonys for their performances in the 2016 Broadway run. They beautifully capture what it means to be alternately disappointed and awed by their children and struggling to maintain identities separate from “parent.”
Erik suffers from insomnia and a much-deserved recurring nightmare, while Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Rich (Nick Mills) is experiencing wild dreams of his own. Daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), is suffering physically, emotionally and professionally. Deirdre is working with refugees; Momo has dementia. There are haunting memories, impending surgery, career dead ends, a devastating secret – and for the too-aptly named Rich, an impending trust fund. Wounds new and old are picked at, stabbed and treated. Politics and religion inform the proceedings but never emerge from the shadows.
What makes us human? Does love conquer all? What is the divine nature of forgiveness as it’s practiced in a real family with real problems? You’ll have to answer those questions yourself, but seeing Humans can help. The play leaves you as emotionally exhausted as being with your own family when things aren’t going well. It’s a relief to leave them behind, stuffed with memories, shaking your head and asking, “Am I really related to these people?” Just like your real family, you’ll be thinking about these characters long after you leave them.
“The Humans” runs through July 29, 2018 at the Ahmanson. 1 hour 20 minutes (no intermission). Tickets.