In between family jokes, shared memories and old rituals, a sense of peril hangs over the Blake family as they celebrate Thanksgiving dinner.
Stephen Karam’s play, “The Humans,” opened last weekend at Durango Arts Center and runs one more weekend. Don’t miss it.
Astutely observed, the 2016 Tony Award-winner for Best Play has been brought to life by Merely Players with a splendid cast, a tellingly downscale set and a dark sense of urgency.
The dinner-table genre may be older than lace doilies, but Karam’s neo-realist interpretation sets today’s paper plates and plastic cups in a distinctly murky and troubled world. Gone are the platitudes of abundance. Gone are the fantasies of secure employment, good health, emotional stability and dignified aging.
Three generations of Blakes gather in a cobbled-together basement apartment in New York City. The script calls for two levels as if two apartments had been revamped to make one with a connecting spiral staircase. Because the DAC has a long, low-ceilinged stage, Tech Director Charles Ford had a major challenge. He created an illusion of a two-story flat by spreading out the sections horizontally and adding stairs down and around the stage apron where utility boxes front a faux cement wall. For a hyper-realistic play, it isn’t the best solution, but it’s what DAC limitations forced.
Just as challenging is the play’s style, fluid, realistic dialogue. Family members argue, interrupt and spin off in new directions as events unspool. Patriarch Erik Blake (a splendidly weary John Garza) appears first and is confounded by old-apartment noises. Oldest daughter Aimee (a crisp and droll Mandy Gardner) and Brigid (a sunny but troubled Brin DeVore) bring in groceries.
Matriarch Diedre (a warm and witty Jeannie Wheeldon) emerges from the bathroom with Grandmother Fiona “Momo” Blake (a touchingly almost-silent Judy Hook). Momo’s dementia adds a poignant undertone to the saga.
When Richard Saad (the excellent Jeff Graves) calls up from the basement kitchen, the one outlier adds to the family drama by acting often as a foil. Extended family members are alluded to throughout – an aunt and uncle and a parish priest. There is no escaping this is an Irish Catholic generational story with an immigrant grounding. The singing of “The Parting Glass” is a moving centerpiece as is a table prayer which stirs Momo to a moment of recognition.
Director Mona Wood-Patterson has chosen her cast wisely and has melded them into a tight-knit ensemble. Family dynamics spill over in love and conflict, affection and bitterness, and there’s time to breathe, to take in an important announcement or moment of insight.
Karam is a young American playwright in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee as he examines the American family and poises a sharp carving knife over the American Dream. The sense of existential dread that hangs over “The Humans”is lightened by flashes of humor, so it’s no surprise that Karam has adapted two of Anton Chekhov’s plays for Broadway. I never thought I’d see an American Chekhov, but Karam just might be the guy.
The Blake’s Thanksgiving dinner runs about 90 minutes in real time with no intermission.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.