Stephen Karam’s The Humans reveals complexity in family dynamics
The Humans is a warm-hearted play that thoughtfully deals with family relationships, class stature and what it’s like to live in modern-day North America.
Featuring a mixture of comedy and drama, the performance draws on the relatable concept of family gatherings. The characters show both their inherent flaws as well as their capacity for love and understanding.
“This play is set up as a very traditional family drama where a family comes together for Thanksgiving,” director Jackie Maxwell says. “It’s quite funny because of the family dynamics. It’s really only until the play progresses that you start to realize that there are certain issues that are lurking and slowly come out.”
The Humans was a hit on Broadway during its run, but unlike most directors, Maxwell chose not to see it.
“I had read it and I’m glad I haven’t seen it,” she says. “I like, as a director, to not see someone else’s production so I’m not trying to replicate it.”
Karam’s play is written in 90-minute real time, meaning there are no stops, blackouts, or jumps in juncture. It’s an unorthodox way to write a play, especially with every actor being present on stage for the whole 90 minutes.
“You have six actors on stage in a two-level duplex with four separate areas and a kitchen,” Maxwell says. “So every actor has to have a complete journey through the play and then they interact. So you could have a scene upstairs while a solo moment is happening and then a scene downstairs. For me, it was a huge puzzle. Like how do you pragmatically get all of this stuff to work out and time out and not let that aspect take over the story?”
It can be a very challenging endeavour, not just for Maxwell, but also for the actors.
“It makes it a bitch to learn,” says actor Ric Reid who plays the father, Erik. “We overlap we repeat, there may two or three people talking at once, but the last phrase needs to be heard to push the story forward. So it’s an orchestration of language really.”
Karam’s writing is incredibly meticulous. He may be one of the only modern playwrights who has successfully mapped out what a real conversation between multiple people at the same time actually sounds like.
“It should look completely authentic when the audience is watching it,” Maxwell says. “But at the end of it all, our brains are completely toast. It’s like I have to say, ‘Hold on, you cant serve this sweet potato until this actor says this line.’”
“Hopefully the public goes, ‘Oh that seems easy,’” Reid says. “The last thing you want is to show the difficulty or the thousand hours you put into that one scene.”
The stage production is wonderfully unique. As Maxwell has said, there will be a two-storey duplex set in Manhattan’s Chinatown with individual rooms that the characters interact with.
“I felt like I should have fly facet eyes so I could see everything happening at once,” laughs Maxwell. “If you think about it, the kitchen is used as the refuge during family events. Sometimes people go to the bathroom just to get the hell away from their family.”
Yet, there is a great amount of humour peppered throughout the play. The tension between families can be both frustrating, but also funny. Each member is really only trying to be a good person, but individual quirks and beliefs can run the conversations into a confusing and infuriating brick wall.
“There’s a lot of real hefty laughs in this show,” Reid says. “The humour comes from the dedicated family and the intelligence between them. The two daughters are university grads and although dad and mom are not, they are both educated. So their interaction with life is pretty high. There’s wit and universal family dynamics.”
As far as plot, all we know is quite ambiguous and both Maxwell and Reid are not giving much away.
“We have dad struggling with a nightmare he has had that’s quite outstanding and confusing,” Reid says. “But that’s all I can say.”
“The ending is one people will argue about,” Maxwell adds. “The underlying anxiety manifests during the end and I’m not saying some horrible monster comes and eats them all, but the father’s anxiety comes to roost at the end.”
Sat., Jan. 6 – Sat., Jan. 27
$30 plus fees & GST