Chicago Theatre Review
A Real Modern Family
The Humans- American Theatre Company
“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays,” or so the song promises. Often, however, going home again or just getting together with your family for a special occasion, can cause the blood pressure to rise. In Stephen Karam’s new play audiences share 90 minutes of a Thanksgiving celebration that brings six family members together, possibly the last time for some of them, each having much to be thankful for, but who are also trying to cope with everything life has thrown at them. Financial difficulties, relocation, affordable housing, job security, aging, retirement, student loans, health issues and healthcare are some of the issues faced in this contemporary drama, that also offers a number of laughs.
Twenty-something Brigid Blake and her live-in thirty-eight year-old boyfriend Richard have recently moved into their own apartment in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. It’s affordable, somewhat roomy and it’s in New York City; that’s about the best that can be said for it. The apartment’s infested with cockroaches, the electricity is faulty and the place is haunted by loud, crashing sounds coming from the roof and within the walls. With very little furniture and everything still in boxes, this would seem to be the most inconvenient location for a family gathering. But it’s important to Brigid to be able to show her family, as the youngest daughter, how independent she’s become. And, although not yet married, she also gets to show off the boyfriend who keeps her grounded, in spite of her difficulty entering the music career she desires.
Arriving at the apartment are her Irish-American family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, which includes her parents Deirdre and Erik, her grandmother Momo, wheelchair bound with Alzheimer’s disease, and her New York-based older sister Aimee, who works at a law firm. At first glance, this extended family seems happy and somewhat carefree. But as the afternoon turns to wintry evening, made even darker as the lights burn out one-by-one, each family member confesses his personal calamities. With the consumption of too much alcohol, personal dreams, failures and petty annoyances gradually surface and bitter fights break out. Before long the happy family festivities become a sad, dismal display of what many people experience at holiday gatherings. In the big picture, this play becomes a condemnation of how the nation’s economy has affected everyone during the last five years.
P J Paparelli’s direction is flawless. He keeps his actors real and painfully honest at every turn. Every theatergoer will see himself or a family member in this company of characters. David Ferguson’s dingy, two-level apartment is a familiar-looking renovated metropolitan hovel, lit by Brian Hoehne’s realistic, low-income illumination. Patrick Bley’s often deafening sound design adds a layer of unknown fear and continual irritation inside a facility that’s anything but hospitable.
Lance Baker’s Richard is the boyfriend, the character that keeps everyone sane and as civil as possible. Richard’s age and former health problems, now under control, are the Achilles heel that might bring a lesser man down; but Mr. Baker’s mature, even demeanor brings soothing calm to the proceedings. Jean Moran creates a grandmother sadly living in her own world due to the onset of dementia. Although sometimes humorous, during most of the play Ms. Moran’s brutally honest portrayal of Momo draws a tear from the audience, particularly in a very touching moment when she sparkles during the familiar words of saying grace. Kelly O’Sullivan’s Brigid is very much that young woman everyone knows, who wants to bring her loved ones together and, at least for one day, provide a few moments of happiness for everyone. Most people wouldn’t dream of hosting a family feast in a newly-inhabited, practically empty apartment, but Brigid’s desire to prove how grownup she’s become overrides everything. When Ms. O’Sullivan breaks down while admitting her difficulty finding a job, a moment everyone can identify with, the actress shows her vulnerability and strikes a familiar cord.
Erik Blake, the family patriarch, is created with Irish pride and a reluctant humility by Keith Kupferer. His painful admission that he, too, is a victim of what it means to be human is devastating. Hanna Dworkin’s Deirdre is spot on. She’s the mother everyone knows, dabbling in social media, balancing a family and all its problems with a job. Admitting how difficult it’s become to work under a smart-ass boss who’s younger than her own kids is degrading and we deeply feel her humiliation. Trying to keep her life balanced and everyone happy isn’t easy. In this, Ms. Dworkin is a master of understatement. Older sibling Aimee, played with truth and passion by Sadieh Rifai, is one of the most difficult roles in this play. The character is always trying to keep up a positive front in the midst of her own personal crises. Aimee’s suffering from her severe health issues, she senses that her job is on the line and her love life is now on the rocks and prospects don’t look promising. Balancing all of this Ms. Rifai is extraordinary at keeping her character from becoming melodramatic while making her heartfelt and real.
Stephen Karam’s new play will be making its way to New York’s Roundabout Theatre next year, but it’s being given a true, gritty treatment here in PJ Paparelli’s exquisite production. It’s multilayered and magnificent in its honesty and heartfelt earnestness. Every actor is superb. Each moment is both familiar and unique. The playwright says there are six basic fears: poverty, criticism, ill health, the loss of love, old age and death. In his latest play, now in a breathtaking, heartfelt production at the American Theater Company, audiences will experience all of these firsthand. This is, after all, what it means to be human, especially in today’s world.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 17-December 21 by American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-409-4125 or by going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.