By JEAN LOWERISON | Uptown News
I’ve been to a few family holiday gatherings that were less than purely joyous occasions. Apparently playwright Stephen Karam has, too. Or maybe he’s just read author Napoleon Hill, who once listed six basic human fears: poverty, criticism, ill health, loss of love of someone, old age and death.
Karam’s play “The Humans” gives us a family who collectively fear (or suffer) all those things. It’s a bit of a heavy lift for what he bills as a comedy, but it won the Best Play Tony in 2016, and plays through Feb. 2 at San Diego Repertory Theatre.
It’s Thanksgiving, and the Blake family has gathered in younger daughter Brigid’s recently rented ground floor/basement duplex in New York City’s Chinatown. Brigid (Kate Rose Reynolds), a wannabe composer, and boyfriend Richard Saad (Brian Mackey), studying social work, are hosting the festivities.
It’s an odd place, made by connecting the dark basement section with two dingy little rooms above it. There’s a steep curved stairway and a window that looks out on a trashy alley.
The rest of the family has come in from Pennsylvania. Parents Erik (Jeffrey Meek) and Deirdre (Elizabeth Dennehy) live in Scranton and have taken charge of Erik’s mother Momo (Rosina Reynolds). Momo suffers from dementia and is in a wheelchair. She is given to loud outbursts or spells of quiet muttering, mostly incoherent. She will spend much of this Thanksgiving sleeping on the couch.
Erik and Deirdre have spent their careers on what used to be adequately paid middle-class jobs: Erik doing maintenance at a school; Deirdre an office manager. But economic times aren’t what they once were. Deirdre complains that two new male hires are making more than she does.
Older daughter Aimee (Amanda Sitton), a lesbian lawyer in Philadelphia, has the heaviest lift of all: a triple-whammy of problems. She’s learned that she’s not making partner (“That means go find another job,” she says). She’s mourning a recent breakup with her girlfriend, and she needs surgery for ulcerative colitis. How will she manage?
But Brigid is excited about her new place. She wants to be a musician but tends bar to pay off student debt until that becomes a reality. Boyfriend Richard is from a bit more money and will come into a trust fund in two years when he turns 40. Envious mutterings are heard from Erik, who advises him to “save your money now” because “no matter what you have, it all goes.”
Erik can speak to that. He’s worked for some 30 years at a school in Scranton but intends to tell the family today that he’s lost it because of an indiscretion with a teacher.
Most of the family still manages to fake it and at least pretend that life is good, or good enough, at least for this day. They laugh together at little jokes, though Deirdre fails to giggle when she encounters a cockroach the size of a mouse.
But when Aimee leads a sing-along of an Irish blessing before they eat, things seem almost normal.
Director Todd Salovey has found the right cast for this play. Meek’s Erik is heartbreaking as he tries to be the strong one for Dennehy’s Deirdre, but she’s too smart not to know that tougher times are coming.
Sitton’s Aimee exudes a confidence she may be faking, giving it away when she asks in passing whether it’s better to go through life unhappy alone or unhappy with someone else.
Kate Rose Reynolds is utterly charming as Brigid, still hopeful and too young to be beaten down, even by the scary noises in her apartment. Mackey is the perfect foil for her as Rich. He exudes the confidence of the trust-fund kid who need not worry – at least not yet.
Momo is wonderfully played by a nearly unidentifiable Rosina Reynolds. (The Reynolds we’ve seen so often has so much energy that it’s a tribute to her considerable acting chops that you could even buy her as Momo.) And what a treat to see the Reynolds ladies on the same stage.
Special kudos to the tech crew here, beginning with Giulio Perrone’s strange dual-level set, darkly lit (that only makes sense in this play) by Chris Rynne and exuding all those sudden, shocking sounds by Melanie Chen Cole.
The Tony-winning “The Humans” is an odd piece, combining near sitcom-like family comedy with existential angst. The fit doesn’t always work, but it’s worth pondering.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.