The terrors of family life: Jackie Maxwell directs The Humans at the Citadel

Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb in The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I thought I’d be settled by my age, but, man, it never ends…. Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?”

Now there’s an open-ended question for the angsty existentialists among you. It’s put to a younger man by a 60-something father in the funny, heart-breaking, unnerving Tony Award-winner that opens Thursday on the Citadel mainstage. In The Humans, you’ll meet three generations-worth of disappointed people beset by every kind of pressure and secret — financial, marital, medical, romantic, professional. You guessed! They are a family.

And, in Stephen Karam’s acclaimed 2015 play, they are a family gathered (under one dubious roof) at one of the most stressful moments in the yearly calendar: Thanksgiving dinner. Those of you who have just pulled through another Christmas or Hanukkah dinner drama with your relatives, clutching the shredded remains of your secrets, will wince sympathetically at the struggles of the Blakes.

An America which promised much by way of  “getting ahead” has somehow become a darkening world where Erik and Deirdre, working-class and in their sixties, are losing ground. One daughter, the artist of the family, can’t make headway against her student loans; the other, lawyer, has a lost a partner, a job, and her health. Erik’s mother has slid into dementia and her own language. 

Director Jackie Maxwell. Photo supplied.

“A lot of anxiety!” says Jackie Maxwell, the distinguished director in charge of this Canadian premiere, a co-production with Toronto’s Canadian Stage that, amazingly, is the first time the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival has ever worked at the Citadel. “I take supernatural elements as a manifestation of anxiety….”  The “notion of family tradition” is, as Maxwell puts it, “part of the reason we do it; we need a kind of solace. The catch is that it’s with the very people who put you out of your mind.”

As the engaging Maxwell well knows from 14 seasons heading the mighty Shaw, 2002 to 2016,  the multi-course family dinner drama comes with its own built-in complications onstage. Food, for example. And in this department, The Humans might take the cake, so to speak (or, more precisely, the chard).

Like Tracy Letts’ family drama August: Osage County (where the issue of green bean casserole reduces a family dinner to chaos), The Humans happens on two levels, with the characters in full sight.

“It’s beautiful, the level of detail and depth in it,” Maxwell says happily of The Humans. “And technically, it’s been fascinating…. A 90-minute real-time piece of theatre. No blackouts, no escape, no jumping (in time). A two-storey duplex (run-down and in Manhattan’s Chinatown) with four playing areas, two upstairs two down. Every character has to have an absolutely complete narrative…. If there are four people downstairs having a scene, and two people upstairs, they are written to cross-connect.”

The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography

“OK, you have to say three of your lines, then you wait while four lines get said downstairs, before you say three more. In order to make it so you’re not just saying three lines and waiting, you have to have something to do, an action or a thought to keep you going till you say your next line…. Oh my god! The actors and I have ended every day going Oooooooh” (Maxwell shorthand for ‘my brain hurts’).

Meanwhile, the boyfriend of one of the play’s two grown-up daughters is preparing an entire turkey dinner. So, more challenges figuring out the stage logistics:  “OK OK OK have you served the sweet potato yet? No. OK, why don’t you hold on the sweet potato while this is happening over here?” Just guessing here, but in a long and eminent theatre career that began in Maxwell’s native Belfast, and crossed the Atlantic in 1978 “for love!” (her ex is star Canadian actor Benedict Campbell), The Humans might be the first time Maxwell has heard an actor talk about sweet potato preparation instead of his motivation.  

“Building Ragtime was easier than this,” sighs Maxwell, who directed that epic multi-generational American musical at Shaw in 2012. “‘Bring those 15 people over here’ is easier than ‘OK, you’ve eaten the appetizers, now’….” But Karam’s script is “incredibly meticulous,” Maxwell says. “He’s really worked it out…. Part of it is like a cooking show: how much has to be done onstage and how much can be pre-done?”

Who knew that chard could be as crucial in theatre as any line reading? “Richard Lee as the boyfriend has to spend the first 15 minutes onstage prepping. So he has to know how much to chop.” Maxwell, amused, permits herself a sigh.

The Maxwell story itself would make good coming-of-age theatre: it involves a feisty, self-educating protagonist who’s a quick study, in a foreign land. The little kid who acted onstage at the Lyric in Belfast (“some terrible play about the Irish famine”) and got a degree in drama in Manchester arrived in Canada age 21 as an actor because Campbell “had just been hired by John Wood at the National Arts Centre…. I talked my way into a job as John’s assistant, as one does (laughter). And it was a fabulous education: I became the resident assistant director, to Wood, John Hirsch, Jean Gascon…. I drank it up.”

“I love actors; I have huge respect for the single-mindedness of what they do. But I didn’t really have that as an actor.” Directing, with its “big-picture focus, and then its zoning in for specificity and detail” was a better fit for the new Canadian artist.

The other “seminal feature of the NAC,” she says, was playwright Sharon Pollock. Maxwell directed the second-ever production of Pollock’s seminal Lizzie Borden play Blood Relations. “She was wonderful. And completely terrifying.” And when Pollock asked Maxwell ‘what happens to new work here at the NAC?” and was confronted by a cupboard full of unread new plays collecting dust, Pollock was an instigator for a new workshop program led by Maxwell.

“Paul Gross, Gordon Pengilly … the writers all seemed to be from the West,” says Maxwell. “I became very interested in new Canadian work.”

Then came 12 years at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, devoted to the expanding the Canadian repertoire (“I stopped because I was burnt out, and I had two little kids”).

A passion for new work and … the Shaw Festival? As Maxwell points out, Christopher Newton’s parting gift as artistic director was to “open up the mandate.” A festival repertoire exclusively devoted to Shaw and his contemporaries would now embrace  contemporary plays about the era too. 

“And that’s what interested me, putting those plays side by side with Canadian plays, current Canadian writers: what would that conversation be?”

When Maxwell directed The Coronation Voyage by the Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard at Shaw the year after she arrived, “on opening night I sat beside the first live writer ever to see their own show onstage at the Shaw Festival!” She’s proud of that.

“I believed in the company, in the intellectual rigour, the production values. But I wanted to introduce new Canadian work, work by women, more women directors: a female voice…. That first season I hired seven female directors; you’d have thought I’d unleashed a nuclear bomb.” 

She even discovered rarely produced female writers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods (Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son for one). And as for adaptations, “the more reading I did, I realized that translations go very stale before the actual play does.” Maxwell was proactive. Morwyn Brebner, for example, made the 1929 Ferenc Molnar farce The President “really hop,” she says. Susan Coyne did a new translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; Neil Munro tackled Ibsen’s fairly intractable Rosmersholm. And under her watch novels got adapted for the stage, too. “I kind of elasticized the mandate,” says Maxwell modestly.

Fourteen Shaw seasons were her exit cue, Maxwell decided. “I have a real belief that since all these jobs are huge, really you should think about how long you’re doing them…. I wanted to leave while I still felt great about it. My Irish mother said ‘always leave before they push ya out Jacqueline’.” Maxwell laughs. “The Shaw was firmly established in the 21st century…. I gave them two years notice.”

And now she’s restored to her true theatrical calling, directing. Is there anything she misses about her artistic director life in Niagara-on-the-Lake? “I miss the walks in the morning, by the Niagara River,” she says. “I miss the company, because I love so many of them. I do miss the creative building of it…. Sometimes I’m reading the New York Times and I think ‘o, that would be such an interesting play to do!’”

“But that’s really it. These jobs are SO huge now. So much fund-raising…. Sometimes you’d find yourself in a meeting about QEW or transport or passports. And you’d think ‘is this why I got into the business?’”

“One thing I do miss about Shaw is the ability to take a look at an interesting young artist and give them a chance, a boost.” We are harbouring a notable example:  the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran. In her first season at Shaw, Maxwell had the young up-and-comer direct a lunchtime production of Brian Friel’s Afterlife. “It’s wonderful to be able to take chances on people,” Maxwell says. “People took chances on me.” 

Once Maxwell had left the festival (“it’s like having an enormous computer chip taken out of your head!”), it didn’t take long for the calls to start coming. She directed Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine at the Arena in Washington D.C., a play about America’s failure to recognize fascism that was festering before World War II. “We were there in D.C. at the time of the Inauguration,” she says. “Suddenly, the play was totally topical…. I’ve never been so glad to be Canadian.”

She’ll be back at the Arena next season, and teaching at the National Theatre School in Montreal in the fall. And she’ll be back at Stratford where she directed the lurid Jacobean revenge tragedy The Changeling this past seasona “play I love, in a kind of crazy, terrifying way….” This time it’s a new piece, Erin Shields’ in-progress stage adaptation of Paradise Lost.

Maxwell’s is a life on the road at the moment — “two suitcases and everything else in storage” — that will eventually turn into life in a Toronto apartment “when I have the time to be there.” Meanwhile, Maxwell finds herself, for the first time, working in Edmonton, immersed in a play about the darkening fearful landscape of contemporary America. “The week we started was the week the tax bill got passed in the U.S. What is it like to be lower or middle-class in America?”

“This is a play that really does get how families talk. … The level of familiarity is such that you can say things that sound very hurtful but are part of a (family) conversation that’s been going on for years. It’s fascinating to me. I can understand why it connects to people.”

The Humans

Theatre: Citadel/ Canadian Stage

Written by: Stephen Karam

Directed by: Jackie Maxwell

Starring: Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb, Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Richard Lee

Running: Thursday through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820,


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