In an uncertain world, The Humans takes us home for Thanksgiving dinner: a review of the Citadel/ Canadian Stage production

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 wish you had more of a view,” says a mother to her irritated younger daughter in The Humans, surveying the alley from the sole window of a run-down duplex in lower Manhattan.

Later in Stephen Karam’s bleakly funny, heartbreakingly melancholy family drama — the 2016 Tony Award-winner getting its Canadian premiere in a tense, well-cast Citadel/Canadian Stage co-production directed by Jackie Maxwell — a father will reveal the recurring nightmare of his own darkening tunnel view.    

As the Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in the Chinatown digs of Brigid and her boyfriend Richard, every character (except the latter) will reveal a view of dwindling prospects. The last vestiges of the American Dream — the now-legendary one where hard work leads to happiness, progress, solvency — have soured a while ago. In its place? In a word, dread.

In its sneaky, slow-burn, cumulative way Karam’s play paints a group portrait of the stress-filled landscape of fear, anxiety, and disappointment where humans live now, in the post-911 world.

Deirdre (Laurie Paton) and Erik (Ric Reid), a working-class couple increasingly unable to make ends meet in their ‘60s, have driven into NYC for the holiday from Pennsylvania. With them is Eric’s mother Momo (Maralyn Ryan), high-maintenance now that she’s lost in the mapless world of dementia with its irrational outbursts and repetitions.

Richard Lee and Laurie Paton in The Humans, Richard Lee, Laurie Paton in The Humans, Citadel/Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

Brigid (Sara Farb) is a budding composer, flailing in the slough of student loans, bartending under the table, unable to find a job in her field. But, hey, she has a new apartment and a great boyfriend (the cook for the occasion), and is up for celebrating both with her family.

Brigid’s older sister (Alana Hawley Purvis), a lawyer, has arrived from Philly and a year that has battered her with losses — her job, her true love, her health.

I wondered a bit about Judith Bowden’s design for this two-storey down-market Chinatown duplex, constantly referred to as dark. It seems almost suburban in its bright, clean, unclaustrophobic whiteness. Michael Walton’s lighting (and chilling lacks thereof) fully enters the narrative, though. And so does Matthew Skopyk’s unnerving sound design.

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

Where is security — physical and psychological —  to be found in a chilly world of aging, where dreams turn into nightmares and jobs, relationships, professional prospects, inheritances disappear into uncertainty? The Humans is about that. And it’s pretty scary, full of flickering lights, ominous sounds, and false assurances.   

What makes Karam’s play remarkable is the way something recognizable gives way to something more disturbingly mysterious. As the production directed by Maxwell sets forth in its 95-minute real-time span and believably prickly characters, a family dinner reunion drama with its texture of interruptions and overlapping fragments gives way at the seams to an unsettling sense of encroachment.

It’s a tricky shape, highly detailed, and it happens right before our eyes, in a space where everyone is visible simultaneously. And while I imagine that this production will gain ease in its rhythm of sudden family flare-ups and rapprochements — the overlaps occasionally seem laboured and planned — Maxwell’s well-chosen cast deliver characters who do feel related.

Anchoring this genuinely nerve-wracking experience — and upping the ante of course, as parents do — are Reid and Paton. The former, a wonderful actor as Citadel audiences have reason to know, is arrestingly fine as the Erik, increasingly frayed at the edges by his efforts to contain a dark secret and stave off fear (or is it despair?). He is a raw, nervous kinetic figure, in perpetual motion. As the play’s funniest character Deirdre, maddening and lovable, stumping for the idea of faith in a faithless world, Paton is terrific too.

The actors have to be, and are, a convincing ensemble. Under Maxwell’s direction they’re attentive to the intricate but natural surface of interruptions, a cross-hatched shorthand of hostility and warmth, aggravating repetitions, overheard bits and piece from which The Humans is built. Family life is all about recycling — grievances, riffs, obsessions, innuendoes, affectionate teases, mantras. When you’re with your relatives, the walls have ears, and it’s entirely possible that no one ever completes a sentence for the duration. 

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

As the two sisters, who live very different lives, Farb is the energetic, brittle one, struggling to land in her chosen field of musical composition, wounded by a grudging letter of reference, Hawley Purvis is the lawyer, teetering but still resourceful; she has a memorable telephone scene that will tear at your heart a little. 

As Richard, Richard Lee isn’t the older, more experienced boyfriend of the New York productions. Here, the character is boyish but game, a young man cushioned somewhat by a well-to-do family and aiming for the conciliatory note when caught between resentful Blake factions. He would seem to be no match for any of them, but rises to the occasion when cornered.

And as the incoherent prophet in this tumultuous world, Ryan is utterly compelling. “You can never go home!” she mumbles. And how right she is.

In the fearful world of diverse uncertainties, is family a comfort? Yes and no, says this disconcerting play, which contains both a kitchen sink and a very non-kitchen sink sense of dark, uncontrollable forces out there. “That’s a terrible key for me,” says Brigid, as the Blakes decide to sing their traditional family song for Thanksgiving and every festive occasion. It may be a terrible key but the singing counts for something.


The Humans

Theatre: Citadel/ Canadian Stage

Written by: Stephen Karam

Directed by: Jackie Maxwell

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

Running: through January 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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