What: The Humans
Where: Citadel Theatre’s Shoctor Theatre
When: Until January 27, 2018
Tickets: Purchasable here
As the end of January approaches and holiday memories begin to fade into fuzzy anecdotes, everyone could use a dose of familial frenzy. Those a little homesick need to look no further than the Citadel’s Canadian premiere of The Humans to be reminded of the beautiful imperfection that is the family unit.
The Humans is a critically acclaimed one-act written by Stephen Karam, making its Canadian debut under the direction of Jackie Maxwell, former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. This co-production with Canadian Stage brought a buzz to the audience, who was excited to see the intimate six-member cast onstage for opening night.
For a dizzying 100 minutes, the intermission-less play explores the American Thanksgiving get-together of a small family, with parents Erik and Deirdre in New York along with sick grandmother Momo to visit their daughter Brigid, who has just moved in with boyfriend Richard. Brigid’s sister Aimee also joins in the celebrations. Over the course of the single act, the holiday progresses from evaluations of the new place to probing questions about the lives of family members and even revelations of family secrets.
Karam’s writing is an intricate mix of unsettling drama and relatable narrative, but what makes The Humans so special is the unexpected humour that underlies it all. A truly hilarious play even in the wake of its subject matter of money troubles, socioeconomic disparity and lost jobs, loving jibes make their way into the rapid-fire dialogue with ease.
Even the smallest details add to the atmosphere of the play. A notable contribution is the sound design of Matthew Skopyk, whose subtle bumps and thumps were jump-inducing and added to the overall ambiance. The inventive set design of Judith Bowden was unique, as audiences had a view into a dollhouse-like sliced cross-section of the play’s duplex apartment setting and all the dinner events of the production. This clever set gives the entire play a voyeuristic vibe; over the act the entire cast is constantly onstage, and even when two characters step aside for a private talk not spoken aloud for the audience, they are exposed to the viewers’ gazes. This dance of movement and overlapping conversation is meticulously choreographed and keeps eyes wandering and plot moving across levels of the home.
This unsettling feeling of seeing things you feel you shouldn’t is emphasized by the raw conversations the characters take part in. We’ve all had to have these tough conversations ourselves with our own families, but they are decidedly private matters and seeing them discussed while the viewer watches on just feels wrong. The Humans really gets to the core of what are at once relatable and extremely uncomfortable issues that are discussed only within the context of family.
The small ensemble cast easily plays off one other, and each gentle touch on the arm or tender gaze offers a hint into complicated family dynamics. Perhaps most moving is the universality of these characters and the situations they are in — money issues span any geographical setting, while the characters themselves have appeared in one aspect or another within our own families or close friends.
With The Humans, you step into an alternate family filled with the same sort of people you know and situations you’ve been in. Although the play makes nods to the New York City setting, it really could be set anywhere as it tackles universal issue of new relationships in a family, socioeconomic inequality, religion, and illness.
As a whole, The Humans is a treat to watch and presents a beautifully imperfect family for the night, which keeps you picking apart the intricacies observed long after you step outside the duplex. Under the judicious direction of Jackie Maxwell, this critically acclaimed piece touches on that uncomfortable and universal humanity in us all.