Plays used to be about "something" without making that "thing" so intrusive that it gets in the way of entertainment. Stephen Karam's play, "The Humans" which is playing this week at Proctors in Schenectady harkens back to the days of those plays, to that tradition. The play, on its base level, is about a family gathering for a Thanksgiving dinner with three generations represented, each exposing its own foibles and quirks but loving one another enough to tolerate even the worst indiscretions of the others. In a different way the play is an allegory about death and its anticipated traumas, about the differences between the eternal cockroach and the dying human race. Ultimately it is a mystery play, in the old religious sense of a mystery, about the alien atmosphere surrounding the recognizable reality of our staid existence. Ultimately, however, it is extremely entertaining even when it brings us to a "blood running cold" state of existence.
On a remarkable, two-story set by David Zinn representing the two floors of an old duplex apartment in New York City's Chinatown, the cast of six play out their stories of intense involvement with one another. Brigid Blake, played by Daisy Eagan, and her boyfriend Richard Saad, played by Luis Vega, host the gathering in their new, only partially furnished home. Dierdre and Erik Blake, her parents played by Pamela Reed and Richard Thomas, have journeyed north from Philadelphia with ERik's ailing mother Fiona "Momo" portrayed by Lauren Klein, in the company of Brigid's sister Aimee, played by Therese Plaehn. It is the first time the family has come to this new place as a group and it is the group dynamic that seems to set odd things happening.
An upstairs neighbor makes horrible noises. Doors close even when propped open. Lights go out, kitchen items fall off counters, a mysterious figure makes an appearance, cell phones only work pressed up against a window and then work without that access. More peculiar yet, Momo comes back from her Alzheimerish state to recite prayers, sing songs, laugh and even compose a moving letter to her granddaughters. When Erik suddenly deteriorates into a state that resembles his mother's mental condition it is a chilling look at evolution and conditioning.
Richard Thomas; photo: Julieta Cervantes
Lauren Klein is chilling as Momo, quiet more often than she is vivid but brightly so when it occurs. She has the longest involvement with the show and her rapid changes of mood and viability are fascinating to witness and done with a surety that surpasses any and all expectations. Luis Vega provides a sane, and pleasantly so, demeanor through everything that confronts him in his own home. He tolerates perfectly the inquisitive parents of his girl-friend. He hosts and cooks and is almost constantly active and makes it all feel normal and natural.
Therese Plaehn plays the troubled child whose failing relationships engage her almost as often as her family does in the course of this 90 minute play. She is the pretty one, the one who cannot create anything lasting or meaningful. Plaehn also brings a seemingly normal patina to this character and her problems. As her mother Pamela Reed is the most intrusive character, a know-it-all who is teaching herself tolerance in all things: in relationship failures, in the aging process, in the marital questions. Reed can turn a phrase with the same ease she employs turning upstage on a circular staircase. This character is one who makes a study of everyone and every thing but never seems to be studying anything she can confront. Reed makes the combination of efforts into a thing of curious beauty.
The play, though, belongs to Daisy Eagan and Richard Thomas, daughter and father, uneasy companions in the adult relationship with which they are now confronted. He studies her as she goes about her business, learning what it is to be the father of a grown woman. He finds himself reflected in her being; she is to him what he has been to his own mother, confined in many ways. Thomas does all this with great subtlety, but it is visible nonetheless. Eagan is as unaware of his constant scrutiny as a twenty-something could be. She clearly dotes on him, but she plays the distance of two adults with clarity and depth, an arms-length portrayal of their advancing and growing relationship. Together they make the play sparkle, especially in the setting of the family unit that surrounds them, a fine filigree setting for the double jewels they themselves have become.
Much of the credit for this goes to the script by Karam, but the final crafting of the imagery is all to be credited to Joe Mantello who has directed this play with a very keen eye and clever mind. There seem to be no other options for the characters than the ones he has given them. Each player and every setup is ideal at every moment. Justin Townsend's lighting design enhances the mystery of the play with practical lights sending interesting shadows through the landscape of the duplex. Likewise Fitz Patton's sound design is remarkable. Every time something is triggered in this play the sound that accompanies it, or creates it, does more than merely enhance the effect, it becomes the effect itself.
A remarkable team of theatrical professionals allow us to witness the changes in our society that mark something alien in our midst that passes for ordinary. They allow us to see how very ordinary people can continue their mundane lives in the face of the extraordinary made undistinguished. A trip to Chinatown, or in this case Schenectady for this story could just as easily be set in the Electric City as in New York, is a worthwhile journey for the curious. It probably always has been the seat of things unanticipated. It certainly is right now in this play.
The Humans plays at Proctors, 432 Main Street, Schenectady, NY through March 11. For information and tickets go on line to proctors.org or contact the box office at 518-346-6204.