Arts Club Theatre's The Humans

Come spend American Thanksgiving with the Blakes—the inclusive feel of director Amiel Gladstone’s staging of The Humans, a 2016 Tony Award-winning play by Stephen Karam

The playwright could have chosen “The Blakes” or the more obvious “The Family” as a title, but “The Humans” highlights how each family member bears his/her own individual flaws, vulnerabilities and hopes that are relatable to society as a whole.

Gladstone deftly maneuvers the delicate shifts between bruising humour and uncomfortable conflict in this biting Arts Club Theatre dramedy.

The Humans is not only a commentary on the erosion of the American Dream but it’s one with wry wit and platitudes that are hilarious only because they are so familiar. Stable employment is rare; a stable pension is even more so.

Every generation aims to set up their children so they’ll properly succeed. What happens if the young can’t make it? And what happens if the parents need help too?

Arts Club Theatre's The Humans

Elders Erik and Deirdre Blake have driven through the snow from Scranton, PA to have Thanksgiving dinner with their youngest daughter, Brigid. Also present is Aimee, their older daughter who lives in Philadelphia as well as Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother “Momo” who suffers from late stage dementia.

Brigid has made an important (and likely financial) decision to move into an ‘affordable’ duplex with her much older boyfriend Richard, just steps from the site of 9/11. She proudly shows off the spaciousness of the pitiful dwelling where a narrow winding staircase connects the basement with the windowless subfloor of the cutaway set.

The dialogue is naturalist, ripe with jabs, squabbles and the forced gaiety typical at any family gathering. Amidst the cacophony of Manhattan noises – subway, clamorous neighbours, jarring garburator – personal grievances are aired and traditions upheld, like a toned-down Festivus. Though together in the same room, each family member struggles within a separate strife.

Deidre expresses her displeasure at how her daughters have both left home and abandoned religion and marriage. A dejected Aimee, still heartbroken from the breakup of a long-term lesbian relationship, divulges that her job is in jeopardy due to her worsening ulcerative colitis.

Arts Club Theatre's The Humans

Brigid is laden with student debt and laments having to bartend at two places while still pursuing her dream to be a musician.

Richard, the only non-blood relation, reveals a former battle with depression. Erik scoffs at the couple’s choice to spend extra money on superfoods, declaring “if you are so depressed, why are you trying to live forever?” Momo’s frustrated mutterings and outbursts seem to echo the family’s inner fear of helplessness.

Assurances offered by the family head suddenly seem empty as Erik reveals a secret of his own. Hope diminishes with each revelation so on the ironic occasion of Thanksgiving, what have they to be thankful for?

The superb chemistry of the assembled cast drives the emotional entanglements of this plotless play. Kevin McNulty strikes a terrific balance as a judgmental, yet loving father withering with inner shame and turmoil.

Parm Soor, Kevin McNulty, Nicola Lipman, Samantha Rose Richard
[Parm Soor, Kevin McNulty, Nicola Lipman, Samantha Rose Richard]

Nicola Lipman as Deidre is the real stalwart family head, despite her fussing and complaining. Lipman’s nuanced dialogue portrays a stoic woman who has silently weathered ill-treatment both at work and at home but has chosen to demonstrate love over anger.  

Briana Buckmaster as the suffering Aimee delivers self-deprecating humour with nonchalant flourish but her sadness is raw and palpable. She is well matched with Samantha Rose Richard as her entitled Millennial sister, Brigid. Her whiny undertones are annoying yet accurate and articulate a character who has yet to fully take responsibility for her own choices.

Parm Soor makes the most of his part as cool-headed Richard by injecting awkwardness symptomatic of boyfriends at gatherings with ‘the parents’. Gina Stockdale successfully portrays dementia-stricken Momo. What she doesn’t utter in words she expresses with penetrating agony in fits and spasms.

Arts Club Theatre's The Humans

Drew Facey’s cutaway double-storey set is alive and breathes with the show. It is layered with cheap Ikea furniture, mismatched chairs, band-aid structural repairs and unseemly renovations – reflecting the damaged characters.

The constrictive spiral staircase is symbolic of the restrictive choices faced by the Blakes as they try to navigate their lives. David Mesiha’s soundscape of unnerving thumps and Adrian Muir’s spastic blackouts increase in correlation with the family’s fear. Deidre’s attempt to restore light with an LED lamp is only a temporary fix.

Sound and light elements besiege the audience in a creepy and discombobulated atmosphere. Alone at the end of the play, Erik is swallowed by the darkness but nonetheless must move towards the uncertain light.

Stephen Karam’s tale showcases a normal, caring family struggling to stay resilient in an America that has lost most of its optimism. Amiel Gladstone’s perceptive production of The Humans continues on the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through April 22.

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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