Story: Brigid Blake and her boyfriend, Richard Saad, have recently moved to a nifty, two-story duplex apartment in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown district. The skeletal imprint isn’t much for ambiance and the neighbors can be noisy, but it’s home to the young couple and they intend to fix it up nicely.
Brigid has invited her family from Scranton, Penn. to spend the Thanksgiving holiday. Arriving are her father Erik, her mother Deirdre and her sister Aimee as well as her grandmother, Fiona “Momo” Blake, who is wheelchair-bound and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s a tightly bonded family but not without its challenges. Erik is queasy just visiting New York, where he had been in 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked. In fact, he had planned to take a tour of the buildings and was at a donut shop nearby waiting for the observation tower to officially open when the terrorist strikes occurred.
Beside that reservation, Erik makes obscure references to some secret he appears to be hiding from everyone but Deirdre. She’s worked for decades in the same office, where she’s seen too many men promoted ahead of her, but she wards off bitterness by volunteering to help the less fortunate.
Aimee is an attorney who lives in Philadelphia and has recently ended a long-term relationship with another woman whom she’s known since childhood. Momo has brief moments of lucidity but most often babbles nonsense in a loud and disturbing voice.
As for Brigid, she hasn’t had much luck starting her career as a musical composer, and Richard is still in school. The latter, however, has a trust fund which will be accessible once he turns 40 in a couple of years.
There’s a deep-seeded love which the Blakes have for each other, but the walls are thin in Brigid’s apartment and voices carry up and down the staircase between the two floors of the apartment as well. Thanksgiving is a joyous occasion, but there may be something unsettling about to overwhelm the soft undercurrent of tension to reveal some disturbing fissures.
Highlights: The Rep is among the first regional theaters to gain the rights to this one-act drama by Stephen Karam, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2016. Artistic director Steven Woolf taps into the strength of his cast and technical colleagues to capture the cadence and intentional cacophony of this unsettling story in a strangely compelling production.
Other Info: The Humans is an odd work in that it appears to strive to be out of rhythm throughout the course of its 90-minute story. That intentionally jarring effect invites its audience to examine each of the characters as they’re strategically positioned on Gianni Downs’ carefully disheveled set. Dirty walls, heaps of unpacked boxes and a barred window are among the features which give a forlorn personality to the barren apartment.
Rob Denton’s lighting plays a major role, too, depicting bright lights which permeate from beyond the premises or lighting fixtures which go out mysteriously from time to time. Rusty Wandall’s ominous sound design adds a plethora of creepy noises, such as loud bangs from the floor above, while Dorothy Marshall Englis’ costumes reflect the ages of the respective characters.
Downs situates a staircase at the rear of stage right, which Woolf integrates into the drama’s rather static action. A bathroom as well as an apartment entrance at the rear of the upper level allow for various scene locations, as does an unseen kitchen at the back of the lower half of the set.
All of those areas provide sanctuaries where characters drift away from the main area – the dining room table on the main level – to listen into others’ conversations or simply to stare into space. Woolf carefully showcases the clusters of drama which are as crucial to the story as its overt conversations.
The Humans is an ensemble piece, moving its focus between the half-dozen characters who appear in unison in the very first scene. Brian Dykstra portrays Erik as a loving and concerned father, son and husband, while also dropping hints as to some unpleasant secret he intends to reveal. He’s spent many years working for a Catholic school in Scranton, but now seems to be dodging questions about his plans for retirement.
Carol Schultz conveys the emotional anchor of Deirdre’s personality, a staunch Catholic who has a big heart as well a need to furnish a statue of the Blessed Virgin for her daughter’s new residence. She and Dykstra both show a loving devotion to Momo, Erik’s declining mother, who is played by Darrie Lawrence in a strong and difficult performance which summons both sympathy and alarm at Momo’s condition.
Kathleen Wise shows the strength and bravado of older sister Aimee, who is slowly crumbling from her own health and career challenges, while Lauren Marcus conveys both the love and the fragility of Brigid, frustrated by her stalled life.
Fajer Kaisi nicely demonstrates the easy-going and affable Richard, who like Erik has been beset with some puzzling and ominous dreams. Unlike Erik, Richard views his dreams from an optimistic perspective. Richard remarks that in one of his dreams, terrifying aliens with teeth on their backs arrived on Earth, only to escape in horror from the dangerous creatures known as “the humans.”
Karam’s open-ended conclusion to his story gives audience patrons plenty to contemplate as they leave the world of the Blakes for their own families and narratives. What would those aliens think of us?
Play: The Humans
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 4
Tickets: $18.50-$89; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.