Dim lights come up on a two-story apartment. The space is very lightly furnished, and Erik Blake stands on the top level holding groceries. He just stares at the window on the far end of the stage, and all is silent and still. Finally, a loud drumming sounds, and like a heartbeat giving life to the play, lights life, and Erik snaps out of his trance.
With that, the play begins.
Broadway in Chicago presents The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello, The Humans (winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) follows Erik Blake (Richard Thomas), as he and his family join their youngest daughter, Brigid (Daisy Eagan), and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Luis Vega) for their first Thanksgiving in their new apartment. At first, all seems fairly normal. Brigid is excited to show off her new apartment, her mother, Dierdre (Pamela Reed) surprises them with housewarming presents, and Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Therese Plaehn) just wants to smooth the tension between some concerned parents and her younger sister who is trying to survive as an artist in New York City. Erik’s mother, Fiona “Momo” Blake (Lauren Klein) is battling dementia, but the family is really just happy for her to be with them for the holiday.
However, as with any family gathering, nothing is ever going to be easy. There is always family drama, and the Blake family is certainly no different. Karam masterfully crafts a script that is bubbling with tension, and with every new reveal of information, it becomes harder and harder to keep the family in check.
The Humans is a slice of life kind of play, providing the audience with a window into a Thanksgiving dinner for this family in real time. Part of the brilliance of Karam’s script is the realism and relatability – most can see themselves in at least one of the characters on stage, whether it is a father who is concerned for the well-being of his daughters, a mother’s attempts to ease the comfort of a mother-in-law battling a deeply challenging time, or a daughter trying to impress her parents with what little she has.
In addition, there is a constant state of tension throughout the piece – with every new detail, that tension only increases. Mantello, through every pause or beat shift, beautifully brings that pressure to life, spreading that sense of unease throughout the theater. That which is perhaps most clever is that until the big reveal at the end, every new piece of information is fairly small – this is truly just an average family dinner. However, especially in collaboration with the design elements, the craftily built tension makes everything feel even bigger.
Helmed by Mantello, the artistic team creates the perfect scenario for this pressure-filled play to succeed. Scenic Designer David Zinn plays to the realism of the piece in his design, planting a two-story New York apartment on the stage. Brigid and Richard are still in the process of moving, and so the apartment lacks furniture, but has cardboard boxes, and most notably, the folding chairs and collapsible table in the middle of the stage for the Thanksgiving meal - where the primary action occurs. The apartment itself has two stories with one winding staircase on the far side, which Mantello uses to his advantage, creating some beautifully tense moments for characters to remain at the top of the stairs and eavesdrop on conversations below.
The script calls for a loud banging sound to occur from the apartment above, and Sound Designer Fitz Patton’s choice to transform the banging into one that resembles a drum beat further feeds into the bubbling tension – creating the sense of a quickening heartbeat. As the pressure intensifies, the banging becomes louder and a sharper interruption for the action below, which only increases the stakes.
Mantello’s ensemble is perfectly cast – bringing this drama about a family dinner to life. Vega’s Richard is charming and sweet, but even he cannot create enough of a buffer to keep the group in check.
Plaehn and Eagan create a lovely sister relationship. Aimee has her own troubles regarding her professional and personal life, but as the older sister, works to come to Brigid’s aid, and the youngest does the same when Aimee feels attacked. The relationship is one full of support and love, and the actors’ stage chemistry pushes it over the top.
Lauren Klein’s Momo is heartbreaking, particularly as the audience witnesses the true extent of her dementia and through small details, learns just how much of a powerful role she once held in the family. While Momo is primarily quiet throughout the play, Klein’s presence is strong, and in Momo’s most distressing moments of confusion, Klein delivers the scenes with a brutal believability.
Thomas and Reed as Erik and Dierdre Blake carry a good deal of the action, and certainly rise to the occasion. Reed’s portrayal of Deirdre as the overprotective mother with no boundaries adds to the relatability of the piece, as well as a heartbreaking element. There is a running joke in the play about Deirdre’s long emails to her children on current events, and in one particularly strong scene, Deirdre stands at the top of the stairs, listening in on her family mocking her for her tendency. Mantello’s staging choice and utilization of the set helps capture the moment beautifully, and Reed’s performance is spot-on. As she descends the staircase and pretends all is well, it is impossible not to sympathize with her as the tension levels continue to rise.
Erik Blake both begins and ends the play, and Thomas creates an honest, and at times frightening journey for the audience to watch unfold. As the head of the household, there is a high level of pressure on Erik’s shoulders to help his family succeed, and at every sign of a familial failure that rises to the surface over the course of the dinner – whether that is failure to maintain a job, or failure to find good health, Thomas beautifully portrays that added weight that brings him down.
An impactful script and power ensemble make The Humans a must-see event.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through February 11, 2018
Tuesdays at 7:30pm
Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Run Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.
Cadillac Palace Theatre
151 W Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60601
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.