Sunday 11 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Humans

It’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, this initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely.And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 37: Stephen Karam’s The Humans (2014)

This year’s Tony winner for Best Play was The Humans by Stephen Karam. Played out in one scene, the play is about the Blake family coming to New York to have Thanksgiving with Erik’s youngest daughter and her partner in their new Chinatown duplex.

Erik has been having nightmares and is struggling with his back; his wife Deidre has been helping the Bhutanese refugees back home in small town Scranton, PA; their eldest daughter Aimee has broken up with her long term girlfriend and has intestinal problems; youngest daughter Brigid is struggling to pursue her dream career whilst trying to cover the bills; her older boyfriend Richard is back in college and pushing 40. I don’t want to drop any spoilers but suffice to say Karam paints a well-observed, warm portrait of family life, with all its imperfections, in-jokes, strange traditions, tensions and worries. It strikes a chord on many levels, whether we recognise worries about money or elderly relatives, ill health or being out of work.

Karam’s text is meticulously detailed. Characters interrupt each other, overlap, trail off and repeat themselves. There might be a conversation going on in one room while another is happening in another room – or other floor. That brings me to the other really distinct feature of The Humans: it is set over two floors, each with separate rooms so we can wander our attentions into whichever room we wish. It’s a slow-burner of a play, but over the course of the get-together, we learn how the events of 9/11 still haunt this family, we hear the daughters rebelling against their parents especially concerning views on religion and marriage, and we see the Blakes’ familial instinct to help each other out. On one level this play is an insightful psychological family drama but it also operates on another, more ambivalent and mysterious level. Karam blends concrete family drama with elements of the supernatural. It is gripping until its uncanny, moving end. I wonder if we’ll see it in London sometime soon.

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