Review: Initially confounding ‘Humans’ at SHN accelerates quickly with passion, pathos and purpose

The Humans
(L to R) Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, and Luis Vega make up the cast of Tony winning and Pulitzer nominated play “The Humans,” running through June 17th at the SHN Orpheum Theatre. (Julieta Cervantes photo)

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of things. Circular dialogue that seemed to go nowhere in one of those New York Chinatown apartments that have a million things wrong for an absurd monthly price, yet a spot that anyone would kill for. The dialogue felt banal, the problems of these folks seemed more like inconveniences, and we in audience strapped in for a quirky play that takes place through a quirkier little Thanksgiving dinner.

But this is where the play’s brilliance shines. It lulls you into a sense of complacency, and when you least expect, hits you over the head with a haymaker.

Be patient – the genius of the play lurks quietly in a dark corner of this apartment and strikes with power as the secrets unfold.

Stephen Karam’s 2016 Tony winning, and Pulitzer prize nominated one-act play “The Humans,” now in a touring production presented by SHNSF, is loaded with searing truth all revealed during a not-so-warm holiday gathering, which is loaded with a cast of colorful characters. There is the matriarch of the family, Deirdre (a delightfully dark busy-bodied Pamela Reed), a woman with a charming aloofability, a meddling mom who doesn’t quite get anything about the life choices of her daughter Brigid (a magnificent Daisy Eagan). There is also a newer wrinkle, one that involves integrating Brigid’s older social worker boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) into this family that seems to have put the fun in dysfunctional.

With a phenomenal set design by David Zinn, one that is touched up by a couple of different styles of chairs, and a soundscape designed by Fitz Patton, the play is wonderfully unified. Director Joe Mantello has paced his play greatly, placing solid staging on a double decker set, with seemingly infinite chances for entrances and exits.

Others who attend this dinner are also carrying their own burdens, including Brigid’s colitis-filled sister Aimee (beautifully discovered Therese Plaehn) and the family dad Erik (a phenomenal Richard Thomas). And finally, a character that has an intriguing arc is the grandmother Fiona (original New York cast member Lauren Klein).

As the play begins to reveal its universe, we begin to see that the family we thought was quirky and insignificant is so much more, well, human. They bemoan the bathroom’s lack of a fan after multiple bowel-emptying sessions and deride the apartment’s lengthy challenges for Fiona to access said bathroom.

There is also something else that this apartment offers at no extra cost – a constant sound that starts off as annoying, a pesky upstairs neighbor kind of problem. But as those secrets are unveiled, including a key piece that brings Erik back to his painfully tragic discoveries on Sept. 11th, the sound becomes more piercing, more sickening, and more painfully specific.

The last 15 minutes of the 95-minute play offers the most poignant plot points in the storyline, one that is edge-of-your-seat compelling. As Erik tells his daughters what he and Deirdre are now dealing with, constantly bumbling his way through the resolution, the daughters are devastated, crushed. He reassures them that he and mom will be ok. The girls press harder. He repeats what he needs them to hear, and what he needs to believe is true.

But how can he be ok? How can they be ok? A lifelong laborer, as is the case with so many who spend 40 years working a job as opposed to having a career, he has years to show and nothing to show for it. There’s a sick mother, daughters facing their own obstacles, and a grandmother who remembers nothing, save a prayer that exemplifies the family’s Irish Catholic values built in blue-collar Pennsylvania.

As simplistic as the title and the issues seem to be, that is where the play gets its strength. In portraying the ordinary, the play finds the extraordinary. Humanity at its basest is also at its finest. The nobility and imperfections of life, along with horrendous choices made of both necessity and circumstance are what this play does so well. Because when life is being lived at its most tentative, walking through the wrong door can have devastating consequences.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF Presents “The Humans”
Written by Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
The Word: Just wait for it, but this play accelerates quickly, revealing its universe with passion and purpose.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through June 17th
SHN Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $40 – $150
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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