In more than half a century of playgoing, I don’t think I’ve heard dialogue written more naturally than in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans.”
Does that sound like faint praise for a Tony-winning play? I might have said “hilarious,” which it often is in a slightly painful way. Or “heart-stirring,” which it becomes as characters wrestle with surprises that threaten to knock them down (if never out). Or “spooky,” with its elements of the supernatural or divine – you can decide for yourself, as the patriarch of the Blake family must finally do.
But the strongest memory of the show remains the honesty of the dialogue: bluntly forthright, filled with awkward non sequiturs, goofily funny, frequently overlapping, heedless of what others have just said or may feel, naggingly repetitive in the sad need to be “right,” to explore an old emotional wound the way your tongue unconsciously keeps running over a broken tooth. I heard echoes of my family in these outbursts of affection and irritation and defensiveness. If you drop into Knight Theater this week to catch the show on its Broadway Lights tour, I’d wager you will, too.
The Blake clan, headed by parents Eric and Dierdre (Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed), have come to Manhattan’s Chinatown for Thanksgiving dinner with their daughters: attorney Aimee (Therese Plaehn) and composer Brigid (Daisy Eagan). The parents have brought along grandma Momo (Lauren Klein) to eat a meal cooked by Brigid’s partner, Richard Saad (Luis Vega). He’s the outsider for whom financial problems will soon evaporate, because he’ll come into a trust fund in two years.
The show takes place soon enough after 9/11 that those attacks remain fresh in the characters’ minds, especially as Eric drove Aimee into New York that day from their home in Scranton, Pa. All the Blakes are now in flux: Brigid can’t get a suitable job, Aimee has lost her shot at a legal partnership and her longtime lover, Momo has declined further into the Alzheimer’s disease that renders her nearly unintelligible, and we’re about to find out why Eric and Diedre can’t stop sniping at each other and the kids.
In this context, a casual reference to a scientific article that molecules are always in motion becomes the central theme of the play: The apparent solidity of physical objects, like the apparent equilibrium of our lives, conceals a state of perpetual turmoil and uncertainty.
Yet underneath the layers of fear and anxiety lies a bedrock of love. Perhaps also a bedrock of faith: Eric and Dierdre retain their Catholic religion, believing it sustains them through all trials, though their daughters have abandoned it. But you know these exasperating people will never give up on each other, not from a sense of duty but from an often-unexpressed bond.
Director Joe Mantello elicits spot-on performances from the cast but, more crucially, choreographs them in a conversational ballet. He makes full use of David Zinn’s two-tiered set, which appears to be sagging before our eyes; sound designer Fitz Patton and lighting designer Justin Townsend jolt us at crucial moments, making us wonder whether a non-human presence has intervened. (Does the 70-year-old Chinese woman upstairs really make sounds like a wrecking ball thudding to the floor?)
Three things about Karam’s script especially impressed me. Momo recovers lucidity for only a brief moment and never delivers some phony epiphany to the others; you hear her “speak” in a touching e-mail read by Dierdre near the end of the intermissionless play. Second, every character faces a crisis, yet those are kept in balance, without anyone’s problems being exaggerated or overwhelming us.
And although Karam comes from a Lebanese-American family, and Richard’s Saad’s last name (and Vega’s olive skin) suggest the character has a Middle Eastern origin, references to 9/11 don’t trigger an attack on Islam or a defense of it. We never learn Richard’s religious beliefs (if any), and the Blake family doesn’t make a point of embracing or rejecting him because of his heritage. They simply accept him as a fellow human, as we do all six of these characters by the end of this poignant play.
WHEN: Through May 6 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes without intermission.
TICKETS: $25-$$99.50. Also $25 for student rush.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.