Review: Stephen Karam’s ‘The Humans’ merges family and the supernatural

SW Portland's Artist Repertory Theatre hosts Tony Award-winning play through Dec. 17.

Stephen Karam’s The Humansdirected by Dámaso Rodríguez, is playing at Artists Repertory Theatre through Dec. 17. The show sold out all first week performances and as a result, ART added new performance dates. When it premiered on Broadway in 2016, it won the Tony Award for best play.

The narrative happens in real time. The 90-minute production contains no intermission, so audiences get to experience this Thanksgiving dinner—the family’s celebrations, traumas, and tender intimacies—in an hour and a half.  

Over the course of the performance, the audience is privy to a small dinner party in which Brigid and Richard, having recently moved in together in a Chinatown apartment, invite Brigid’s family over for a holiday meal. Enter Deirdre, her mother; Erik, her father; Aimee her older sister; and Momo, her grandmother.

Each family member, in true Irish-Catholic American tradition, has their own cross to bear. Deirdre, while trying to hide the extent of her arthritis, tries to connect with her non-religious and unmarried daughters who don’t lead the life she was hoping they would. Erik, hiding a family-destroying secret, is still plagued by the guilt from his eldest daughter almost dying in the 9/11 attacks.

Aimee suffers from a chronic illness, which clueless doctors have labeled ulcerative colitis, and nurses a broken heart after her breakup with her girlfriend. Brigid, baby of the family, works at a bar while trying to find her opening into the music world.

Richard, the outsider to the family is seen as a black sheep—older than Brigid, and set to receive a trust fund in a couple of years. And, perhaps most heartbreakingly, there is Momo, the paternal grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

As the play progresses, family members snipe at and hurt each other, question their choices and try to make things right. Each is dealing with their own pain, so no matter their intentions, they inevitably inflict pain on the people who love them most.

Richard finds himself interjecting, “Hey, be nice to your mother,” and regaling the family with his strange dreams to lighten the mood. In a moment of levity, Richard tries to explain his beloved comic book collection to the family—a series about monsters who have nightmares about the humans. Hey, wait a minute, the audience says. Isn’t that the title of the play?

The cast was incredible. I bought every line. I laughed along with the sisters and the blunt discussion of their realities. I cried as Momo’s email to her granddaughters was read aloud: a letter that made it clear she was cognizant of her own deteriorating mind and wanted to say goodbye to Brigid and Aimee. The Humans is, undoubtedly, a perfect snapshot of life is like for 21st century middle-class Americans struggling with their own demons and the demons surrounding them.  

The thing about The Humans, for me as an audience member, is that it felt a little too familiar. It was like looking in a mirror and not seeing anything new. I am intimately familiar with these relationships and see them play out with some frequency in my own life. The Humans captures a haunting reality.

ART’s former two plays, An Octoroon and Caught, were infused with meaning and imagery the audience is meant to chew on long after the curtains have closed, and The Humans was a bit of a reprieve from that. It discusses heavy, intimate topics for certain, but I didn’t feel the need to carry the story with me as I traveled back home.  

The play culminates with the father experiencing something…other. Possibly supernatural, or possibly the product of his guilt eating away at him. Presumably this is supposed to have built up from strange noises the family had been hearing all night, strange figures who appeared and disappeared outside the window. But as an apartment dweller myself, these are all experiences I am used to. If you’re telling me the disappearing neighbor act is actually supernatural, then I might need to reevaluate the last seven years of my life.

Overall, The Humans gave me feelings both familial and visceral. The spectacular cast had me right there with them, but the narrative and the storyline itself let me down in small ways.

So what is the take-away? Humans are monsters? Walk toward the light? Hold onto your family when you can? I’m not sure. But shows have been selling out, and I suggest you see for yourself.

Tickets for Southwest Portland’s ART production of The Humans are available here. Regularly-priced tickets run for $60, with under 25/student discounted tickets for $25.