From the moment Erik Blake enters his daughter Brigid’s New York apartment on Thanksgiving, he’s a man vaguely haunted. And though the play The Humans, onstage at Theatrical Outfit through June 25, delves into the entire Blake family’s layers of dysfunction during dinner, Erik’s grief and fears provide its focus and depth.
As playwright Stephen Karam understands, holidays are a time of high anxiety, sugarcoated niceties, perceived slights and nostalgic reflection. It’s a pressure cooker for family drama. Karam’s well-written script allows for moments where every character takes the spotlight, yet the entire work is bookended by the patriarch character for good reason.
Erik wants a nice holiday for his family. But he fears, dreads and begrudgingly knows in his soul that the day will be rough.
Relatives we may rarely see or hear from use these designated moments to proclaim to us, from the other side of a turkey, that family is what really matters. Is that true, though? Why does it take a special occasion for folks to notice it then? It’s easy to spout platitudes. It’s more difficult to be accountable for all you’ve done to your family. And it’s perhaps impossible to completely understand them, just as they don’t completely get you.
Theatrical Outfit tells this funny, complicated, relatable and occasionally uncomfortable story with deft direction from Matt Torney, an amazing ensemble cast and a well-constructed two-floor set from Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay.
The Blakes are a White, Catholic, middle-class, American family from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Erik (Allan Edwards) is a school maintenance worker who, along with his office manager wife Deirdre (Lala Cochran), was able to provide college educations and better opportunities for his daughters Aimee (Rhyn McLemore), a lawyer, and recent college graduate Brigid (Maggie Larson). Since their girls have fled the nest, Erik and Deirdre care for his mother (Susan Shalhoub Larkin), losing her function and memory to Alzheimer’s.
This Thanksgiving finds everyone coping with a private crisis. Aimee’s going through digestive health issues that threaten her job, and her longtime girlfriend has dumped her. Brigid has moved into this odd, shabby Chinatown duplex apartment with her older boyfriend Richard (Tamil Periasamy) while she tries to find a career. Erik and Deirdre are struggling financially.
Their issues and feelings all get thoroughly dissected during the play, which is deliciously talky, snarky and insightful about how families can wound one another while trying to relate. The actors are uniformly strong, their faces registering every reaction to insults they extract from all the chatter.
For example, Larson and Cochran’s interactions are rich with a history of resentment and misunderstanding, almost from the outset. Both characters are strong-willed, casually cruel and defensive, and the love they have for one another is buried so deep that they doubt it exists amid the criticism.
Edwards’ and Cochran’s rapport suggest a marriage that has endured a lot of pain and annoyance. These two characters know each other to their core, and they spend much of their time getting on each other’s last damn nerve. The secrets they hold drive the play. When the whole script appears to devolve into disconnected bickering, Edwards and Cochran keep the play grounded to its central conceit. Every argument is really about one key thing.
What Erik and Deirdre wanted for their family in terms of happiness and faith hasn’t been fulfilled, yet they still want it for every generation despite differences in circumstance, geography and ideology.
For the audience, The Humans may feel very personal and familiar. This tense Thanksgiving isn’t outrageous so much as it is realistic. (For your information, it really is a tough moment when your mom overhears what you really think of her forwarded inspirational emails.) But the play never feels too heavy or overreaching; it accomplishes its goals.
The entire tech crew at Theatrical Outfit deserves praise for the design and execution of The Humans. In addition to the massive set, the lighting design from Ben Rawson, props by Caroline Cook and sound design from Sharath Patel give the apartment onstage its own quirky personality. Its lights flicker and then blow in startling ways. Strange noises erupt from nowhere. The place is creepy.
Edwards’ performance, even down to his interactions with the set, will likely be one of the year’s best. His character is coping with a lot of trauma, which he attempts to mask with pride and strength. It is complicated work that requires the actor to frequently shift his emotions to suit the needs of other characters. There is a moment he has with McLemore that is lovely and heartwarming, a highlight of the show.
Cochran, a scene-stealer in many comedies staged in Atlanta, is also terrific here as passive-aggressive busybody Deirdre, though she spends a lot of time receiving ire and downright cruelty from her family. Cochran gives her a core of decency, and we feel for her when she hurts.
McLemore gets many of the funniest lines in the play, though her character Aimee is lonely, heartbroken and privately suffering. It’s measured, beautiful work.
Larson’s Brigid, the host of the event and the youngest character on stage, gets to play through an array of stresses, and it’s impressive. She wants everyone to approve of her boyfriend, her new place and how she’s managing her life. At the same time, different generations don’t give her struggles much weight, which adds to her grief. Periasamy, as the outsider boyfriend just trying to survive the meal, strikes the right notes with his work.
Larkin’s physical work – – as her character spends much of the play non-verbal and in a wheelchair – – is powerful and subtle. She holds difficult postures for long periods, and other characters onstage forget she’s there. Yet there are key moments when she is the focus.
The Humans has moments of joy and levity, yet the darkness that threatens to overtake the family is what makes this work compelling.
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.