"The Humans" - ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen Karam's evocative, superbly written "The Humans" chronicles an imperfect family in all its flawed glory.
Struggling to survive in storm-tossed America, they cope with money woes, professional setbacks, broken hearts and chronic illness, while below the surface a faint sense of apprehension lingers. Portrayed with humor and genuine heart, the Blakes feel authentic -- reflecting neither Norman Rockwell's dream family nor Sam Shepard's nightmare clans.
This 2016 Tony Award-winning play delivers bitter and sweet, frustration and compassion, in equal measure. Not that everyone will see it that way. For at least one theatergoer attending the Chicago run of its national tour, the bitter clearly overwhelmed the sweet.
"Next time, we see something happy," she said to her companion as they exited the Cadillac Palace Theatre Wednesday. I wouldn't describe "The Humans," which premiered in 2014 at Chicago's American Theater Company, as unhappy. It is. however, an honest, provocative work. This impressive production, directed with care and grace by Joe Mantello, who also helmed the Broadway premiere, is both expertly staged and impeccably acted.
Richard Thomas ("The Waltons") plays Erik Blake, patriarch of a family confronting problems shared by many middle-American families.
The drama unfolds in real time over Thanksgiving dinner hosted by 20-something Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagan), a composer who supports herself tending bar, and her 38-year-old boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) at their new duplex in New York City's Chinatown. Sparsely furnished (the moving truck has been delayed) and slightly dingy (paint cans stacked in the corner suggest an imminent freshen-up), the place is affordable because it flooded during Hurricane Sandy. And the neighborhood is less than ideal.
The couple is joined by Brigid's older sister, lawyer Aimee (the excellent Therese Plaehn). Still reeling from a breakup with her longtime girlfriend, Aimee has also lost a chance at partner in her firm because of frequent absences due to her ulcerative colitis.
Arriving from Scranton, care packages in hand, are parents Erik and Deirdre (Thomas and Pamela Reed, both terrific). Erik works maintenance at a Catholic school. Deirdre is an office manager. Both show signs of age, evidenced by the way they gingerly climb the spiral staircase to the apartment's second floor.
Accompanying them is Erik's mother Momo (Lauren Klein), who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Except for a lovely moment during the pre-meal prayer, Momo spends most of the visit muttering incoherently or napping.
Beginning with hors d'oeuvres and concluding with dessert, all liberally lubricated with beer and wine, the meal reveals the Blakes in all their familiar imperfection. There's genuine affection, gentle teasing and not-so-subtle digs over grievances past and present. Underscoring the reunion, however is a sense of unease fueled by the usual fears about crime, terrorism (poignantly invoked by Karam) and money. Mostly money.
"I thought I'd be settled at my age, you know?," says Erik, "But man it never ends … mortgage, car payments, internet, dishwasher just gave out ... Don't you think it should cost less to stay alive?"
The evening unfolds against a soundscape of jarring, intermittent noises from the creaky old building and its noisy, upstairs occupants. The noises, along with series of inexplicably blown light bulbs, accentuate the unsettled feeling -- introduced quietly in the opening moments -- which lingers until the play's final moments, which are about as hauntingly eloquent as any I've witnessed on stage.
Ultimately, "The Humans" resonates thanks to the writing and the richly drawn characters beautifully realized by Mantello's excellent cast.
Thomas is quietly impressive as a man carrying a weight that threatens to crush him, signifying with conflicted expression and slumped shoulder what his character cannot verbalize. Reed plays Deirdre with compassionate concern and the kind of "sad stoicism" described by Plaehn, whose sad-eyed, suffering Aimee is astutely drawn. Tony-winner Eagan ("The Secret Garden") is a natural as the know-it-all younger sister who's started to suspect the world isn't her oyster. Rounding out the cast is Vega as the affable, accepting boyfriend, and Klein, a veteran of the Broadway cast, whose outburst late in the play is wrenching and recognizable.
Alexander Pope wrote "to err is human, to forgive, divine." "The Humans" shows us why.
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 11. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 and 2 p.m. Feb. 7
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Paid lots nearby
Rating: For adults; includes strong language and mature subject matter