It starts as just another family drama on Thanksgiving. But family Thanksgivings can be horrific, chilling celebrative occasions for some of us. “The Humans” written by the Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam is just that. The aging dad worries about money, one daughter moans about her student debt, the other is heartbroken by her breakup with her lover, the mother’s Catholic values needle both of them: the younger daughter on the benefits of marriage instead of living with her boyfriend and the older daughter’s evil lesbian life. And we can’t forget Granny — called Momo – who has dementia and will probably not survive another Thanksgiving. This Off-Broadway play interweaves wit, tenderness and blistering brutality in the voices of six emotionally and physically damaged family members at the edge of the abyss.
The sixty-year old father and his wife are taking care of his elderly mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Though lower middle class, the parents have managed to provide a law school education for their older daughter and a pre-Ph.D. musical composer in their younger. Autobiographical bile gets ejected from all family members.
With a two-floor set design where we see at least two characters at the above level secretly engaged in gossip about the family members below, we clearly understand the troubles beneath the surface, the lower level metaphorically representing things unsaid, a family’s dark underbelly. Feelings shift and the upper level is just as unsettling and fractured. Nothing is as it seems. In the final scene the lights go out completely.
“The Humans” has searing emotional scenes — Aimee’s sorrowful phone call with her ex, eavesdropped by her father; a dinner-table reading of an email from Momo, written when she is aware of the early signs of Alzheimer’s; the mother fighting for dignity at her daughter’s belittling of her interest in a scientific article. There’s also comic relief: when Momo sings Irish lyrics in her solitary fog. It’s tremendously moving: the momentary illusion that they can still experience joy as a family. Karam distinguishes himself in portraying this dysfunctional family. This family really is not so different, after all, from any ordinary family with its difficulties and setbacks. With warmth and compassion, even tenderness, the casual cruelty of some of the dialogue is funny, not because the words convey jokes but because the characters are communicating unimpeachable truths. Cutting through a history of friction, misunderstanding, and support, every facial expression, non-verbal gesture, as well as dialogue, points to how much they need one another or think they do.
These are all themes and subplots I am fascinated with and also explored in my debut novel, Things Unsaid.
Note: The title of this post is taken verbatim from Charles Isherwood’s review of “The Humans”, NYT, Oct. 25, 2015. His title says it all. “The Humans” moves from Off-Broadway to Broadway in January 2016 with the same cast. The script is available on Amazon.