It is often said that control is the number one human addiction, and the Blake family has it bad. Add to the mix that it’s Thanksgiving, and it’s a recipe for peak family dysfunction. In Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” onstage at Theatrical Outfit through June 25, audiences may see themselves and everyone they know in ways they don’t like.
Under the direction of Theatrical Outfit’s artistic director, Matt Torney, the play smartly opens with lights up on an empty duplex that looks like squatters’ quarters, but then Brigid (Maggie Larson) and her boyfriend, Richard (Tamil Periasamy) enter, and their angst fills the space where furniture is sparse. Set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have made this set so empty and intricate at the same time with its singular window, air mattress in the corner, exposed insulation and constantly flickering sconces. Brigid’s family is coming to the couple’s new apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, and the moving truck hasn’t made it yet, so a combination of card tables and folding chairs will have to do this year.
When Brigid’s family arrives, that’s when the managing other people’s emotions comes to a boil. Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Rhyn McLemore) is processing a breakup while also trying to steer Brigid’s contentious relationship with their mother, Deirdre (Lala Cochran). Their father, Erik (Allen Edwards), is avoiding his own reflection while feeling caught between caring for his mother, Momo (Susan Shaloub Larkin) and watching Deirdre eat her feelings to cope with being a caregiver. Everyone is trying to have a normal Thanksgiving while Momo’s dementia and outbursts constantly remind them that there is nothing settling about this family holiday.
This is an ensemble of recognizable Atlanta actors who gel so well it’s almost uncomfortable. It truly feels like looking in on a family’s feeble attempt at connection. For anyone who has ever had to care for an elder, especially one who is losing memory, the fight to make someone who they were, instead of accepting who they are, is where Cochran and Edwards really shine in this ensemble. As usual, Larkin is impossible to look away from, even though she has very few discernable lines.
Playwright Karam pulls inspiration from the best family living room dramas in the American theatrical canon. There are traces of the humor in “You Can’t Take It With You,” the desperation around money in “A Raisin in the Sun” and the defeated patriarch in “Death of a Salesman” in this script.
“The Humans” premiered at the now defunct American Theater Company in Chicago in 2014 before making it to the Helen Hayes Theatre in Broadway in 2016. It was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play. “The Humans” was adapted into a film in 2021.
In the script, Karam breaks all the rules about what not to talk about at dinner, so politics, money and religion are on the table. Indeed, the first squabble between Brigid and Deirdre is over a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a snake, even though Brigid is an atheist. Then, there’s the subject of money around a lake house that Deirdre and Erik have been building a little too long for everyone’s comfort and a trust fund that Richard is a stone’s throw away from inheriting. However, it’s the politics that are chipping away at them in ways they don’t always recognize.
This is a working-class family that is still waiting for the American Dream to pan out for them. Momo’s parents came to the United States from Ireland and lived in ghettoes in New York before moving to Scranton, Pennsylvania, for a quieter life. This makes Brigid’s decision to struggle as a musician in New York and Aimee’s choice to work as a lawyer in Philadelphia inconceivable to their parents. An apartment is not a house, after all.
The desire for the American Dream haunts them both figuratively, and perhaps literally. This is where the production hits a few snags. There’s an upstairs neighbor, an offstage Chinese woman who makes so much noise that it sounds like the roof could cave in at any moment. However, as the play goes on, it’s unclear whether she’s real, or whether she is a lingering ghost of the 9/11 terrorism attacks. Then, Erik is emotionally debilitated by his choices and that manifests in the space at the end of the play, but whether this manifestation is real or imagined is unclear.
At one point in the play, in one of Momo’s outbursts, she says, “You can never come back.” This line captures so much of what is happening in the Blake family. Momo’s memory is gone, no matter how much they medicate her. Relationships are forever altered, even when people think they’re protecting their secrets. However, there’s a sense that they will come together for Thanksgiving next year and do it all again. It’s all so very human.
Through June 25. $15-$65. Theatrical Outfit, Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org.