Sometimes you can judge the quality of a play just by listening to the audience.
From the reactions throughout the Alley Theatre to Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning family drama, The Humans (2015, off-Broadway world premiere), you know you're in the presence of something truly exceptional. The audience sits enrapt, sometimes in utter silence, as this domestic dissection of Where-We-Are-Today mesmerizes, galvanizes, and amazes. The laughs fall just so with a casual directness and utter precision. The audience laps them up. When, a moment later, things turn serious or eerie, you can actually feel the audience's shudder of foreboding. It's as if everyone is on the same wavelength. The vibe is wondrous.
Naturally, it's not only the wry insightful play that draws us into sorcerer Karam's world, it's the kaleidoscopic ensemble performances, the apt look of downtown grunge in Kevin Rigdon's double-tier apartment set, the ominous sound work by Matt Starritt, the shivering light work from Lap Chi Chu, the silky direction by Brandon Weinbrenner. This is marvelous ensemble work by everyone. The audience gets it.
Be careful what you wish for, admonishes phenom playwright Karam (Sons of the Prophet, Speech & Debate), because you won't get it. Not today. Today is not yesteryear's dreams.
This isn't a tale of a dysfunctional family, the Blakes, this is a tale of dysfunctional Life in which the Blakes are ensnared. Where do they go, as gaga Momo incants. What do they do? They've got problems; man, do they have problems – student debt, colitis, Alzheimer's, cheating, downsizing, squashed careers, no pension, no savings, panic attacks – all brilliantly interwoven in overlapping dialogue, interruptions, and familial snipping. They snap comically at each other, feel contrite, then snap at someone else. The give-and-take at this Thanksgiving reunion dinner sounds like family.
But through the comic recriminations, the petty bickering, the jealousy and rage under the surface boiling to erupt, there's a constant blanket of warm love to cozy up to against the outside world.
But there's always dread nearby, incessant and inevitable. With stunning theatricality, Karam makes this existential angst vivid and chillingly alive. There are booming thumps from upstairs; the light bulbs suddenly blow out one by one; the pots and pans crash to the floor unexpectedly. Is that snow outside the grimy barred window or someone dumping an ashtray from high above? The garbage trunk on the street thrums like a vengeful beast. The upstairs faceless neighbor pushes her squeaky laundry cart down the hallway and casts a German Expressionistic shadow on the wall. Real, or a figment of Dad's fragile conscience? Everyday life carries dire portents. Fate is unavoidable and constant, yet so is family.
This family feels like home and immediately makes us feel at home. (This is perhaps the greatest miracle of the play. The characters are instantly relatable, and we're drawn into their lives like a magnet.) Eric and Deirdre (Steve Key and Sharon Lockwood), with Momo (Annalee Jefferies) in her wheelchair, visit daughter Brigid (Elizabeth Stahlmann), a struggling composer, but now bartender, who has moved in with boyfriend Richard (Richard Salazar). Their unmarried status is a constant irritant to Mom, who throws pointed zingers their way whenever possible. The Chinatown apartment is dark and dingy. Two packing boxes serve as coffee table. The Thanksgiving table is two card tables with folding chairs. The walls are grimy. Soot stains the only window, which faces an alleyway.
Older daughter Aimee (Elizabeth Bunch) works as a lawyer, but has politely been asked by her firm to move along. She's recently lost her girlfriend and is facing major surgery. Every one of them is traumatized by finances or medical woes, usually both, and unfulfilled potential. This middle class family has taken a beating. Dad seems the worse, his back in constant pain, but something else is going on. The reveal comes near the end of the intermissionless dramedy, but Key is perfectly keyed-up, nervous, on edge. His nightmares consume him. At the end, alone in the dark, his final moments are precise but enigmatic, like Karam's intriguing play.
As Deirdre, Lockwood is maternal love writ large. She sends care packages and emails to her daughters. She worries about them, nags them, comforts them. She endures. As Brigid, Stahlmann is prickly, consumed by health fads, as her beloved career falls apart. When she reads aloud the dismissive referral letter her music professor has written, her composure slumps: face, hands, shoulders. Dejection made physical.
Bunch, as Aimee, falls apart upstairs when Dad overhears her desperate call to her ex. Their poignant scene raises the emotional level another unexpected notch. Her deadly serious medical condition is comic fodder, when not utterly heart-breaking.
Jefferies, whose Momo stays asleep for most of the play, regains consciousness long enough to mumble prophetic catchphrases. In her own world of dementia, she's Karam's Cassandra, frightful of the future and yet no one understands her rants. Salazar, as Richard, a trust fund baby, still suffers repercussions from youthful depression. He likes to makes lists of how to have fun. He might be Brigid's rock for now, but he's also damaged goods. Something warns me that his inheritance may be doomed.
The stage is in constant motion. Characters go upstairs and continue conversations while those in the basement level continue theirs. Sometimes, one of them perches at the top of the spiral iron staircase and overhears the others below. It's all beautifully paced and lovingly performed.
In one of Mom's constant emails to her daughters, she wrote, “Happy Tuesday. Oh, and just F.Y.I.: At the subatomic level, everything is chaotic and unstable. Love, Mom.”
As Karam shows with starling expertise, we contemporary humans must survive as best we can in this chaotic and unstable world. Families and its traditions might not save us, but they're all we've got. With humor, drama, and surprising oddness, by delving so deeply into the very-human Blakes, he enlarges their world and makes it our own.
This production is an Alley crown jewel. The Humans is required viewing.
The Humans continues through March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$89.