I have to be honest here, I saw The Humans on July 3rd and have been wondering what to say about this production because it’s like no matter what words I muster together it can never do justice to the haunting and brilliant play currently running at The Ahmanson.
The Humans is the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize finalist (it lost this award to Hamilton) by Stephen Karam that offers you a raw and realistic look into the American family. It explores the haunting reality of the secrets we keep from one another for the sake of the family and the damage it does not only to the self but to the family when it creeps out.
The play builds like a tense thriller. Karam even offered in a conversation with Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D. (which I suggest you read here because it’s a great peak into the heart of this play) that he conceived the idea for The Humans while pondering what keeps people up at night. The whole play feels tense and unnerving like something bad is lurking on the horizon for the three generations of the Blake family who are having Thanksgiving in a new place and nothing has gone according to plan even before the play starts and yet they still persist in spending the holiday together. The unsettling tone that underlies this play is made more pronounced by the incredible lighting design by Justin Townsend.
The true horrors of this play aren’t ghosts or specters but rather the ghosts of each character’s past and struggle to find meaning in existence and survival. I think we can all relate to that on some level; I’ve spent nights wondering how I’m going to get out of debt and wondering if the dream I had in college for myself will ever come to fruition. This play is meant to resonate with you and I’d be truly shocked if it doesn’t. These characters are so realistic that they feel like I’ve met them individually or that this could be my family up on that stage. The conversations sound so perfectly normal, you might think Karam sat down at his last Thanksgiving and just transcribed what he heard and then threw them onto the stage (with a little bit of editing and flair of course).
What drew me in from the first moment of the play was Reed Birney’s performance as the patriarch of this family, Erik Blake. From the way he dressed to his pointed concern about the safety of his daughter’s new apartment, he was so much like my dad. All the positives and negatives to him. I personally identified with Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), the youngest of the family who never quite seems to think before she speaks and is struggling to make ends meet and realize her dream of being a musician. Sarah Steele captured what it’s like be a young graduate struggling for a dream and the embarrassment of having to tell your family that you aren’t working that dream job yet and are struggling. She tries though, oh so hard. Everyone on that stage is a powerhouse though and I could spend paragraphs singing praises to each of them. Instead, I think I’ll share this quote from Charles McNulty of The LA Times, “If there’s a better acting ensemble working in America right now than the extraordinary cast of ‘The Humans’…I’m unaware of its existence.”
Don’t be fooled by the early lightness of this play. What has you laughing at the beginning may have your heart wrenching by the end. Isn’t that just the way of life? Life is never all comedy and it’s never all tragedy. Family certainly has its cycles but, for the Blakes especially, their genuine love for each other will help them weather the storms ahead but I still have my doubts. This still comes from one of the final moments of the play and I hope it gives you an idea of the emotional journey you’re in for. Again, major credit goes to Justin Townsend for knowing just how to use these lights to add another layer of meaning to every moment.
I do strongly recommend this play to theatre lovers. It is perhaps not for casual fans who are looking for their first play to attend, but for someone who already admires the craft you’ll find a real gem in The Humans. To Karam’s credit, I walked out of that theatre with a greater respect for my family and an understanding of why secrets are kept for so long. Some things are hard to admit. Some things are too frightening to bring to light. Come for the characters but don’t be afraid to wrestle with your own demons at night after this.
The Humans is running at The Ahmanson in LA until July 29th. You can tickets at The Ahmanson website directly or through discounted sites like Goldstar. One thing I didn’t mention earlier that may sweeten the deal for you — almost every major cast member transferred from the original Broadway run to this touring production which is almost unheard of. I love shows like this that really make you stop and think about what you’ve seen and how you relate to the material. Go check it out before it closes or see if it’s coming to a city near you!