Time may march on, but there’s something immutable about the roles one regresses into during family holiday gatherings. Sibling rivalries flare, there are passive aggressive references to real or perceived slights of yesteryear, family traditions are observed, and there’s often some alcohol along the way to smooth or coarsen the track. Love is there, but navigating family can be its own rocky course, which is precisely the appeal in watching the holidays unfurl for fictional families. You identify pieces of yourself, and your own family normalizes a bit. Thanksgiving dinner with the Blake family includes all of the above and comprises the action in Stephen Karam’s play, The Humans, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The play starts on the second floor of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s magnificent set, a two-story apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. The lights come up on Erik Blake (J. Tucker Smith), an upper middle-aged man standing on the second floor landing with a grocery bag in each hand. He looks out, a modern-day Lewis and Clark in a plaid shirt, surveying this new frontier from on high, in this case his younger daughter Brigid’s (Valeri Mudek) new apartment she just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Arash Mokhtar). A wheelchair behind Erik immediately signifies this is a multi-generational gathering. A spiral staircase provides access to the ground floor, but Schweikardt brilliantly chooses not to place a railing at the front of the second floor level. The long unprotected drop is unnerving. The precipice heightens the play’s emotional edges and creates visual vulnerability, reminding us we’re all one fragile misstep away from disaster.
Schweikardt’s black metal staircase winds tightly, appropriately double helix-like. The staircase is not simply a way to ascend and descend. Director Pamela Berlin thoughtfully utilizes it as a space where characters hover between floors, one ear cocked and listening to the conversation above or below. Each character is in transition in some way, and these pauses on the stairs, neither up nor down, symbolize those transitions.
At one point, the mother, Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) comes down from the bathroom and overhears her two adult daughters making fun of the emails she tirelessly sends, ones with subject lines like “PLEASE READ THIS.” The audience laughs easily with Brigid and Aimee (Courtney Balan), and Deirdre’s all-caps emails are genuinely comedic and eyeroll-relatable. As she stands on the stairs listening, Booker’s face softly collapses behind bottle-dyed red hair as she realizes she’s become an object of ridicule. Deirdre loves her children, and her struggle to relevantly express it is both funny and poignant as she foists off a Virgin Mary statue on Brigid along with a wind-up radio, covering emergency preparedness from multiple angles.
Karam’s characters are written a bit one-dimensionally, considering The Humans won the Tony for best play of 2016. Cecilia Riddett is commendable as the grandmother, Momo, but she’s also a caricature of an old lady, an elderly inconvenience who dozes off, then punctuates the action with occasional outbursts. Deirdre and Erik juggle her care, and when Brigid implies they’re overmedicating Momo, Deirdre snaps, reminding her it’s a $100 a night for someone to watch Momo. Over half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, so night care isn’t an in-budget luxury. For the Blakes and most Americans, life is that railingless second floor.
Brigid and Richard’s moving truck has yet to arrive from Queens, so the whole apartment has a makeshift quality. A disposable tablecloth covers a cheap folding table, and the row of turkeys printed on it precipitously dangle over the table’s edge, a macabre death scene that echoes the imminent threat of falling from the level above. A tissue paper honeycomb turkey that looks like it would be more at home in an elementary school comprises the centerpiece and completes a sad dollar store nod to Thanksgiving.
Berlin appropriately chooses to stage Brigid and Richard as a couple you sense won’t work out, even before they unpack. There’s no perceptible attraction between them. Brigid is a frustrated musician with student loans and dual bartending jobs. She disparagingly notes to Aimee that Richard made a pro/con list on whether or not to move in together and also maintains a list of “ways to have fun,” which includes thrill-seekers like “long walks.” One gets the sense Richard comes from money, which is affirmed as the play unfolds, and given their lack of connection, it’s hard not to cynically wonder if Brigid sees him as a financial toehold.
A flaw of the writing, not the production, is the pacing. The first half is overly long, and there’s a sense of relief when everyone finally sits down and gets to the big meal, although Thanksgiving itself can feel that way as you’re forever waiting to eat. Deirdre repeatedly whispers to Erik to “tell them” almost from the outset, and Booker underscores her reminder with fiery eyes that widen and a steel set mouth. Erik’s big reveal, while unanticipated, feels strangely anticlimactic as Smith flatlines and struggles to make it believable. The ripple effect of the reveal is rushed and feels a bit contrived, but the play’s final moments are masterful and impactful.
Growing up, our most successful Thanksgiving dinners were the ones where we ate out as my mother was a weak cook at best. One Thanksgiving, she attempted to cook a goose. I vividly remember my dad standing over it, his carving knife revealing a bloody pink interior, triggering a swell of sailor-worthy cursing from my mother. Ah, blessed family holiday memories. You’ll laugh, nod, and find a piece of yourself and your family in The Humans this holiday season.
The Humans plays through December 10th at the O’Reilly Theater. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.
Photos by Michael Henninger