Chicago Theatre Review
Home For the Holidays
The Humans – Broadway in Chicago
There’s no place like home for the holidays, or so the song promises. However, going home again or just getting together with your family for a special occasion, can often cause one’s blood pressure to rise. In Stephen Karam’s Award-winning play, audiences share 90 minutes of a Thanksgiving celebration that brings together six family members, possibly, for some of them, for the last time. Each has much to be thankful for, but is also trying to cope with all that life has thrown at him. Financial difficulties, relocation, affordable housing, job security, aging, retirement, student loans, health problems 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, comparatively roomy and in Manhattan; that’s about the best that can be said. 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. Sparsely furnished, and everything either still in boxes or en route, this would not seem to be the most convenient house for a family gathering. But, as the youngest daughter, it’s important for Brigid to show her folks 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 career difficulties.
Arriving at the apartment are her Irish-American family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, which includes her parents, Deirdre and Erik, her grandmother, Fiona “Momo” Blake, wheelchair bound and consumed by Alzheimer’s disease, and her older sister Aimee, who works at a New York law firm. At first glance, this extended family seems happy and carefree. But as the afternoon turns into a cold, wintry evening, and the rooms darken as the lights burn out one-by-one, each family member also becomes shrouded in a confession of his personal calamities. With the consumption of too much alcohol, personal dreams, failures and petty annoyances gradually surface and bitter fights erupt. Before long the happy family festivities become a sad, dismal display of the drama many people experience at their own holiday gatherings. In the big picture, Karam’s play is a condemnation of how the nation’s economy has affected everyone during the last five years.
Joe Mantello’s direction is flawless. He keeps his actors real and painfully honest at every turn. Theatergoers will see themselves in this company of characters. David Zinn’s dingy, two-level apartment is a familiar-looking renovated metropolitan hovel, lit by Justin Townsend’s low-income illumination. Fitz Patton’s frightening, often deafening sound design adds a layer of the unknown inside this haunted house that’s anything but hospitable.
Luis Vega’s Richard is the boyfriend and the character who keeps everyone else sane and civil. Richard’s age and earlier emotional problems, now under control, become the Achilles heel that could bring down a lesser man; but Mr. Vega’s mature, even demeanor brings soothing calm to the proceedings. Lauren Klein, who created this lovely role on Broadway, plays a grandmother who’s sadly living in her own world, due to the onset of dementia. Although sometimes humorous, Ms. Klein’s brutally honest portrayal of Momo evokes a tear from audiences, particularly in that very touching moment when she sparkles during the familiarity of saying grace with the family.
Daisy Eagan’s Brigid is that young woman everyone knows, the daughter who only wants to bring her loved ones together and, at least for one day, provide a few moments of happiness on this holiday. 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. Egan breaks down, admitting her frustration finding a job, a moment everyone can identify with, the actress reveals her vulnerability and strikes a familiar cord.
Erik, the family patriarch, is a man sculpted from Irish pride and a reluctant humility by actor Richard Thomas. His painful admission that he, too, is a victim of what it means to be human is devastating. Mr. Thomas shows us the accomplished theatre actor he’s become since his younger days as John-Boy on TV’s “The Waltons.” Pamela Reed’s Deirdre is spot on. She’s the loving mother everyone knows, dabbling a little in social media, but caring deeply for her family with their many problems, and balancing it all 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. We deeply feel her humiliation. Trying to keep her life balanced and everyone happy isn’t easy. In this, Ms. Reed is a master of understatement.
Older sibling Aimee, played with truth and passion by Therese Plaehn, 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 is suffering from severe health issues. She knows that her job is on the line, because of her health issues, and her love life is on the rocks. Prospects for happiness or even normalcy don’t look very promising. Ms. Plaehn is terrific at keeping her character honest and from ever becoming a caricature. Instead, she creates an Aimee who is heartfelt and real.
Stephen Karam’s one-act play, which began at Chicago’s American Theatre Company, made its way to New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company in 2015. There it earned multiple awards, including the Drama Desk and the Tony Award for the Best Play of 2016. This gritty examination of family, fear and the disappointment of failure is presented in an exquisite production, for this National Tour. It’s multilayered and mesmerizing 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 prize-winning play, now in a breathtaking, heartfelt production at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, audiences will experience all of these firsthand. This is, especially in today’s world, what it means to be human.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 31-February 11 by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all BIC box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.