Dallas — “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Retired janitor/maintenance supervisor Erik Blake (stalwart Richard Thomas) is talking to his daughter’s new boyfriend Richard Saad (engaging Luis Vega) in an early scene of Stephen Karam’s The Humans.
Everybody laughs at the line because all but the nation’s super-rich relate to Erik’s litany of costly woes, from increasing medical care for his demented mom to taxi fare from the subway and nil retirement compensation. How in hell — or Trump’s America — are we going to cover the physical costs, never mind the emotional toll, of scratching a career, sickening on anxiety and trying to relocate our disjointed lives, when the very houses we live in are thumping overhead, squealing at the joints and blacking out without warning? You gotta laugh to keep from crying.
The Broadway Series touring production of the critically acclaimed drama, which premiered in Chicago in 2014 and won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2016, is onstage at the AT&T Performance Arts Center. The touring show is directed by Joe Mantello, who directed the Broadway production, and also features David Zinn’s original two-layered set design of a cheap but spacious NYC Chinatown duplex, a blinking, groaning character in its own right that seems to react with uncanny, menacing responses to the trials of its inhabitants stumbling in the dark or running up and down the perilous spiral staircase linking the ground floor and the basement.
We normally see musicals on Broadway tours; they have a committed audience and are much easier to stage successfully in larger venues than a play with loaded dialogue and emotional subtleties. Not since the spectacular success of the puppet-driven War Horse in 2014 has a touring drama generated such anticipation. I was also reminded of the 2010 touring version of Tracy Letts’ award-winning August: Osage County, a drama set in rural Oklahoma in a two-story farm house where family feuds and new revelations played out on two floors simultaneously.
In the 90-minute The Humans, we witness “the very special Chinatown edition of the Blake Family Thanksgiving,” where six characters, all but one related by blood, are in search of food, drink and the kind of love we somehow expect from our families without having to deserve it. They annoy each other, they hug each other, and they share secrets that threaten to topple the whole tribe.
All the Blakes have their troubles, and we feel their pain and resilience through the excellent cast, who draw us instantly into the complexity of their lives and relationships. Erik and his wife Dierdre (a loving, habitually sarcastic Pamela Reed) are a hard-working Irish Catholic family from Scranton, Penn. His mother, called Momo (Lauren Klein, the only member of the touring cast from the Broadway show), has Alzheimer’s and makes weird noises and erupts into sudden volcanic rages from her wheelchair. Kind Erik calmly quiets his disturbed mother with his firm, gentle grip.
Youngest daughter Brigid (ardent, conciliatory Daisy Eagan) has just moved into the creaky apartment with her new older boyfriend Richard, a sweet-natured grad student at 38 waiting for his inheritance to kick in. Brigid works two jobs as a barkeep because her academic music degrees are not, well, getting the rent paid.
Her older sister Aimee (tall, anxious Therese Plaehn) is a mess. She’s lost her job at a law firm, her longtime girlfriend has dumped her, and she’s internalized her misery with ulcerative colitis to the point that she’s constantly rushing to the bathroom sink to vomit. Still, valiant Aimee jokes with her caring sister about finding another partner with an equivalent malady, and both girls laugh about their mom bringing a virgin Mary statue to Brigid’s apartment. Exorcism, anyone?
As the women argue and laugh upstairs, Eric and Richard trade nightmares in the basement kitchen area, when everybody is brought to a halt by the rumblings above, explained as the Chinese tenant doing her laundry, but sounds more like King Kong rattling the old building. Richard assures Erik, who’s feeling invaded, that in his favorite old Quasar comic books, a race of aliens has nightmares about the humans. Small wonder.
Thomas, an award-winning Broadway actor who many will remember as young John-Boy on the TV series The Waltons, is a tough and touching Erik, his shoulders back and his smile sardonic, a working man struggling to survive the crumbling of the American dream into a nightmare of lost faith and property.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this eerie human comedy is the dialogue between the characters and their habitat. (I live in a haunted old house, myself.) When an exhausted Eric stands alone on a darkened stage, the light suddenly goes on in an opened door on the ground floor. It’s hard to tell if he’s facing the cold, open maw of a doomed future or the warm light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the human condition, according to Karam, and it makes for a fascinating night at the theater.
» Martha Heimberg is a longtime educator and preservation activist who currently works with Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT). She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.