A reflection on ‘The Humans’

By on March 20, 2019

The cast of EPAC’s “The Humans” includes (standing, left to right) Brian Viera, Elizabeth Pattey, Tim Spiese, and Megan Riggs; (seated) Kath Godwin; and (kneeling) Julia Elberfield.

There is magic in the mirror. There is also horror. We rise after every sleep to find ourselves once again staring back at our reflection. Some people can spend too much time there, casting doubts upon what they see, interjecting ideas of hope, or pondering past decisions. Others merely glance at their reflection, a disassociation, denial, or blatant disregard. But, the image in the mirror is there. No matter what. It cannot be unseen, even with eyes closed.

It is that reflection we stare upon when watching “The Humans,” the 2016 Broadway one-act by Scranton-born Stephen Karam, which opened at Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Thursday, March 14. In one way or another we are those humans on stage.

The Blake family has gathered in a unique apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. It is Thanksgiving and a slightly nervous Brigid Blake (Julia Elberfield) and her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Brian Viera) — a young couple who have just moved in together — welcome Brigid’s family for the annual gathering.

Parents Erik (Tim Spiese) and Deirdre Blake (Elizabeth Pattey) have made the trek from Scranton and brought the wheelchair-bound Momo — Erik’s mother (Kath Godwin) — with them to their youngest daughter’s new apartment. Also arrived at the apartment is Brigid’s sister, the older and tougher Aimee (Megan Riggs).

Finding faults in the new apartment, the entire family struggles with cell phone service, shoddy lighting, and noises from upstairs neighbors. But those are minor inconveniences masking the real dilemmas facing the family, which slowly come to light during dinner. Everyone seems to be hiding something.

Surrounding the dining table in the windowless downstairs of the apartment, the Blakes retell parts of the family history to Richard, who we learn is much older than Brigid and comes from a wealthy family. This does not sit well with Erik and his blue-collar values, nor does the fact that the young couple have no plans to wed anytime soon sit well with Deirdre’s faith.

Aimee, who is struggling with the ending of her relationship with her girlfriend, is also fighting a serious medical condition and reveals she will need surgery just as she was informed she is no longer on the partner track at her law firm. The timing is horrible, but not nearly as bad as the timing of the parents’ bad fortune — if fortune had anything to do with it.

Momo is slipping farther and farther into the effects of Alzheimer’s; she mumbles incoherently and at times wanders about the apartment while others are distracted. She will soon be in need of around-the-clock care, something Erik and Deirdre cannot afford now that he has lost his job as a school facility manager by breaking the institution’s morality clause. Brigid, a classically trained musician and composer, is having trouble finding work in a post-9/11 Manhattan while Richard continues schooling.

Kath Godwin as Momo.

The noises from the apartment building grow louder and the lights begin to falter. The family is forced closer together, but the consumption of too much alcohol — evidently* — and tide of bad news elevates the stress and anger. The tension mounts and Momo becomes its mouthpiece as one of her “episodes” leaves the family worn, torn, and eager to depart.

In decline, fearful, and under pressure: these are the descriptors critics used to describe the generations represented in “The Humans” when it made its Broadway premiere. As serious as all this sounds, “The Humans” is funny, too. However, these are not jokes making us smile and laugh, but simply recognition of the reflection we cast upon the stage as humans ourselves. We see loved ones; we know those emotions, so when something is funny (or enraging or depressing) it is our personal reflection upon the moment that gives it the emotion. The chuckle coming from the front row may not be the same sort of laugh emitting from stage right.

There is a solid connection between this cast; some scenes are so tight you can’t tell that this is a group of EPAC veterans welcoming the debut of Elberfield to the Sharadin Bigler Theatre stage. It seems as if each actor found at least one character trait they could easily hang onto and make the role part of reality.

As for appearances, casting was superbly handled by director Bob Breen and his crew. The characters looked the part, which added a bit of necessary reality that could have easily been taken for granted. The play calls for the viewer to connect with all characters almost instantaneously, and if we didn’t have the stereotypes of our modern America for building blocks, this play would get bogged down in trying to connect characters to people we know.

It is with the highest admiration I can say I was floored by Godwin’s portrayal of Momo. Integral, yet having the potential to get lost among characters with more active lines, Momo serves as a subtle catalyst for self-reflection and drives parts of the show, especially the climax.

*Where is this drunkenness the characters throw about in their lines? The characters repeatedly dog Erik for being drunk, and I just didn’t see it. Yes, the guy cracks open a few beers, but unlike Pattey’s Deirdre who’s obviously had a few glasses of wine by the end of the night, he is not played as a man inebriated or one who hides behind the label on a beer can. I’m not even sure he needs to be sloshed, but the fact his drunkenness is beaten into the theatregoer through dialogue, yet not portrayed through the character. It is a bit distracting — minimal, but distracting. Trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of drunk family members (the mirror included). Where the fault lies (playwright, director, or actor), I do not know. I only know it was distracting enough to mention.

Back in Ephrata, it seems crowds are drawn to big musicals. The flashier and brighter the better. While I enjoy a good song and dance, too, there is something I love about a heady drama that speaks to the soul. “The Humans” is dotted with sorrow and hilarity, compassion and disdain, disgust and wonder; it is one of those plays that truly evokes the word masterpiece. More people should turn out to see this wonderfully fulfilling piece of stagecraft.

Although this would make for a perfect place to end this review of EPAC’s “The Humans,” I would be highly remiss if I did not praise the work of scenic designer Douglas Frawley and anyone else associated with the stage design. The design of a bi-level Manhattan apartment was incredibly functional, artistically superior, and allowed for action to flow seamlessly. As I awaited the show’s start with the rest of the audience, I was already transferred to the setting before the show began.

Tickets for “The Humans,” which ends its run on March 23, can be purchased at ephrataperformingartscenter.com, or by calling 717-733-7966 x1.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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