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Drama is All in the Family — and in All of Us — Throughout “The Humans”

the humans e1571822795403 - Drama is All in the Family -- and in All of Us -- Throughout "The Humans"
The family has some happy moments together in "The Humans."

A family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner, and though it’s in a relatively preposterous location: an eccentric old apartment in a sketchy area of New York, the participants and the actions and interactions are very recognizable — familiar, even, to many.

Playwright Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” (2016 Tony Award for best drama, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nominee that year) is so specific that his fictional creations are fully recognizable and the play — now at Capital Stage — becomes both awkwardly and comfortably real. Karam’s works can be both heart-wrenching and darkly funny.

“I originally thought the way to address the play’s big ideas was a lot noisier, with a lot more bells and whistles,” the playwright says. “But throughout the writing process of stripping things away, by the end, I was staring at six damaged and lovely souls who audiences would watch be hurt and laugh and cry and love.”

The story begins as a classic holiday-gathering tale: Family members trade niceties, superficially catch up with each other’s lives, eat, drink (and drink and drink). Gradually, they touch upon all the subjects we are not to broach but always do: money, religion, and parental advice on what the kids are doing wrong in their lives. Secrets and fears that haunt each of  us in different ways come out. Depression, health problems, romantic difficulties, trouble at work, financial uncertainty — all the worst elements of modern-day life — are revealed.

Michael Stevenson’s direction is self-less, like that of someone who has a perfect cast and a great script and is happy to just let it go, nudging it through comedy to tragedy to the difficult-to-imagine ending with no evident force.

Mom and Dad — Erik and Deirdre Blake (note-perfect Matt K, Miller and Jamie Jones, respectively) have driven in to Manhattan from Scranton, Pa., bringing his mother “Momo” (Janet Motenko, who portrays a grandmother’s fragility and dementia in a preternatural performance that is unsettling in its accuracy). This will likely be Momo’s last outing.

Daughter Brigid (Karen Vance), at whose apartment the dinner is held, and her live-in boyfriend Richard (Damien Seperi), are hosting. He is preparing the meal for the gathering, which also includes the family’s other daughter, Aimee (Kristine David).

The final characters are the ancient Chinese woman — never seen — who lives upstairs and who seems to continually drop impossibly heavy and loud objects, and the building itself. It creaks and shakes; light bulbs burn out and pop, strange sounds abound, shelves drop off the wall — and you have to go either upstairs or down to go to the bathroom — no easy task for a woman in a wheelchair. 

Timothy McNamara’s scenic design, Michael Palumbo’s lighting and Ed Lee’s sound design create this perfect home for a family in distress.

Whether it or they will survive is in question. But the building has withstood years of use and abuse and it still stands — it’s shaky but standing. And, as patriarch Erik says, “Doing life twice sounds like the only thing worse than doing it once.” And, so, we persevere.

“The Humans” is at Capital Stage, 2215 J St., through Nov. 17. Show times are 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $32 to $44.

For tickets or for more information, call (916) 995-5464 or go to CapStage.org.

Photo by Charr Crail

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About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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