It’s Thanksgiving again, time to sit back, eat too much, drink too much and enjoying the family fighting. This is exactly the mindset we’ve spent the winter trying to forget, but The Humans at Santa Paula Theatre Center throws us right back into the mix. The Humans, a play that is fresh off Broadway, winning the Tony in 2016 for best play (as well as Actor, Actress and Scenic Design), feels at home at SPTC. A perfect piece for a venue that has made a name for itself with great performances, wonderful stories, and a fearlessness to tackle some rather obscure and uncomfortable pieces.
The Humans, written by Stephen Karam, tells the story of an awkward, yet poignant Thanksgiving dinner at the new apartment of Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard. The whole family arrives, Mom, Dad, Sister, Grandma all cram into a tiny Chinatown apartment in New York (featuring a fantastic set designed by Mike Carnahan) to share traditions, laughs, tears, and some uncomfortable news.
Aimee (Hayley Cariker) is the go getting older sister. Cariker’s performance is touching and heartbreaking as she struggles with a body that is letting her down, in more ways than one. Her love for her family is evident, even if she is forced by so many factors to be distant. There is one fantastic scene, where her telephone conversation, very well delivered, leaves the audience with a lump in their throat as she shares a moment of despair with her father, Erik.
Erik, played expertly by Michael Perlmutter, is a troubled soul, trying desperately to keep everything together. His family, his future, and his mind. Perlmutter excels in this role. His brash Irish humor, coupled with his ability to tap into raw emotion really allows the audience a peek into the psyche of a broken man. The toast he gives before the meal is served is both sentimental and tragic; delivered with a deft hand.
Angela DeCicco plays Deirdre, Erik’s wife, mother to Brigid and Aimee. DeCicco’s embodiment of the character is grounded and authentic. She flows beautifully between doting daughter, martyred wife, and over involved mother all without losing the unique voice and fingerprints of the character. Her chemistry with each other actor was truly special and wove the entire piece together.
If Erik and Deirdre represent the past trying to understand the future, the unmarried couple, Brigid and Richard are the “Millennials” trying to adjust in a world the boomers can’t understand anymore. Emma-Rose Allen plays Brigid, the dreamer, following her heart and eschewing the “norms” her parents are pushing on her. Brian Robert Harris plays Richard, the eternal student, still in college at 38 and dating a much younger woman. Allen and Harris have some of my favorite shared moments as their relationship shines in the unspoken instants of the show. Shy touches, kisses, and tender glances between the two help shape the realism of this piece. Allen’s eye rolls, and petulant reactions coupled with Harris’ genuine belly laughs and caring tone offer verisimilitude to the relationship, you can tell they are perfect for each other.
Harris’ Richard is the proxy for the audience as he experiences this family for the first time along with us. His loving gestures bring Brigid back to high spirits and keeps the peace when things start to bubble over.
Director Jessi May Stevenson (also the sound Designer) has found many ways to highlight the familial relationships in the space between the text. The way sisters sit and talk, the way a parent supports a child without saying a word, and the pain of overhearing others talk about you, but never letting them know you heard it. We see these things with our family experiences, yet no one talks about them.
One character who lives in those unspoken moments is “Momo,” Erik’s mother, who is suffering from dementia. Rosalee Calvillo’s character while beloved by the family, can be an exasperating burden at times. While Calvillo’s dialog may be minimal, she finds a way to steal the scenes where she does speak, bring smiles to everyone with a prayer and capping it with a gut wrenching exchange between her and Perlmutter in the second act.
A note on the act structure. The original play was a 90 minute “real time” dinner. However SPTC has made the choice to deliver this up into a two act play format. Some audience members may enjoy the break, as it gives time to stretch the legs, use the facilities and pick up snacks, others may find the stopping point irksome, as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I agree with the choice, and think it still works with the piece.
I won’t get into the ending here, other than to praise the magical lighting by Gary Richardson, as it is open to interpretation. Cast and crew have expressed the intent to be purposefully ambiguous, as I believe was the playwright’s original intent. I strongly suggest you going out to see this piece. A great work of theatre at a great venue with a fantastic cast.
The Humans runs at Santa Paula Theatre Center until March 10th