What Lies Beneath

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atc the humansWe’re very fortunate that Chicago has become quite the incubator of new plays for the national theater scene. But that’s a double-edged sword: as I’ve said on this blog over the years and over at the Twitterverse, many of the new plays we Chicago theater-lovers see are truly new plays, needing rewriting, editing, tightening, and improving based on how a playwright sees and hears his or her words performed by actors and received by live audiences for the first time.  Sometimes though we get lucky and come across an August: Osage County or an Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, fully-formed and perfectly-realized works, but they do come far and few between. Most of the time, we’re suffering (quietly and heroically because we do love supporting new work!) through something like Ask Aunt Susan.  Several years ago, I was blown away by American Theater Company’s world premiere of Dan LeFranc’s luminous The Big Meal which traced the life, loves, and heartbreaks of a middle-class American family. It went on to raves off-Broadway but seeing that play without any knowledge of previous productions was exciting for me.  Lightning can strike twice it seems, since ATC is at it again with another superb world premiere of a family drama, Stephen Karam’s achingly beautiful The Humans which will receive a New York production in Roundabout Theater’s 2015 season. This is a great, memorable production directed by ATC Artistic Director PJ Papparelli, and you should be able to tell your pesky New York theater aficionado friends that you’ve seen it first. Because I can bet you they will run to get tickets for it, and love it as much as you do.

I am a big fan of Karam’s Speech and Debate and saw its ATC production a couple of times.  And a lot of what I loved about Karam’s writing in that play is in The Humans: the catty banter, the bittersweet air of the proceedings, and the deeply-felt flawed yet truthful characterizations. But The Humans feels so much more mature and confident than Speech and Debate, so adult, and so unnervingly real.  Its ninety minutes plays out in real-time one family’s Thanksgiving dinner.  The parents Eric and Deirdre, daughter Aimee, and grandmother Momo come up to New York City from Philadelphia to spend the holiday at other daughter Brigid’s new apartment which she shares with her somewhat older boyfriend Richard.  It’s your normal family dinner, with the requisite bickering, reminisces, acknowledged dysfunction and acts of loving tenderness which you can see on any home-for-the-holidays type of Lifetime movie special…but it’s also not. For Karam masterfully and subtly paints the complicated, sometimes clashing socio-cultural-economic themes facing the American family in  2014: there are the deep scars of the economic recession for one;  although both have working-class jobs, he is a maintenance manager in a private school and she is an office manager in a real estate firm, Eric and Deirdre struggle financially. There are the burdens brought about by a “greying” America (the financially-strapped Eric and Deirdre take care of the Alzheimer-stricken Momo) and the striking contrasts with the values of the millennial generation (twentysomething Brigid is a musician who’d rather be unemployed than give up applying for fellowships she can’t seem to get).  There’s the politics of corporate America which has become even more cutthroat because of the recession; gay lawyer Amy has been told she is not on the “partner track” at her law firm anymore ostensibly because her various illnesses have made her miss her target billable hours, but there’s an undertone that it could also be because she’s female and gay. Karam weaves these themes through the family’s conversations, always natural, never forced, never dramatically underscored.  And that’s the power and sophistication of his writing in this play – what seems simple on the surface is packed with meanings, clues, and pointed observations underneath. And he makes these multi-faceted characters feel like your stressed-out next door neighbor, your worried cubicle mate, your just laid-off second cousin.

Papparelli tightly yet gracefully directs the action in David Ferguson’s  meticulously built out duplex apartment, with both an upstairs and a downstairs level, impressively crammed into the intimate confines of ATC’s black box theater.  His gentle, slow-burning staging of the pivotal dinner scene is as powerful in its own way as the celebrated dinner scene in August: Osage County. Papparelli’s direction, like Karam’s writing, is unshowy, natural, yet you know every movement and blocking was thought through carefully to convey the play’s critical emotional moments.

And these emotional moments are brought to glorious, heartbreaking life by probably one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen this year, all giving memorable performances.  The always interesting Keith Kupferer beautifully captures the intermingling of Eric’s working-class gruffness with the tenderness and poignancy in his relationships with his wife, daughters, and ailing mother.  Sadieh  Rifai warmly paints the driven, wise-cracking Aimee with a palpable sadness  from losing both her job and her girlfriend at the same time while Kelly O’Sullivan marvelously conveys Brigid’s contradictions – she is bossy and self-interested as the stereotypical millennial is often depicted but she is also deeply caring and eager to please.  Lance Baker has an easygoing stoicism as Richard, trying his hardest to fit in with this family’s rituals and conventions shaped by decades of loving and fighting one another, while Jean Moran intricately constructs the movements and facial expressions of an Alzheimer’s patient.  But the cast, just like families, is anchored by the mother, and Hannah Dworkin, who I have not seen in a play since the mid-naughts I believe, gives an unforgettable performance as Deirdre. She’s strong, generous, caring, opinionated, but also fussy, petty, and gullible. She grounds the family but also provokes its confrontations. It’s a totally inhabited performance, and at some points I thought I was watching my friend Chris, my former co-worker Jackie, or the myriad of other older women I know who have lived through a lot but keep plowing on, instead of an actor.

I have some nitpicks about the script: I think Karam could have painted a little bit more of Richard’s background (we know he is a trust fund baby and a forever graduate student but that’s about it) and for now he seems to be too reactive and acts as an easy storytelling device regarding the Blakes’ past. I also think the impact of Eric being at the World Trade Center on September 11 waiting for the observation deck to open could have been explored more deeply. But this is a superlative, polished play, proving once and for all why the theater is best in showing real life among all the art forms. See it and cry (with tears of both joy and sadness) for yourself and your family.

The Humans is one of the best Chicago plays of the year and you’re a fool if you miss it. It’s playing at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., until December 21.


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