The modern world is shifting and changing, becoming ever more unstable with increased house prices and rental numbers, the casualisation of the work force, and an overall rough globe politically. The Humans takes an honest look at how these changes are affecting a middle-class American family where everyone’s goals and dreams seem to be moving out of reach. Everything spills out over the Thanksgiving dinner table.
The Blake family are like many others: Erik (Arky Michael) and Dierdre (Di Adams) are the parents paying their dues to the matriarch Momo (Diana McLean) as she proceeds through dementia; Brigid (Madeleine Jones) is still finding her feet after moving to New York City with partner Richard (Reza Momenzada); and younger daughter Aimee (Eloise Snape) thought she was going to be alright until this year when everything went wrong. They stay in close contact sharing articles and chain-emails but there is the classic tension of being both too close and too removed from each others’ lives and choices. The thing they all share is a growing fear of failure, that they’re plans won’t work out and their doubts will be proven true. And, like all problems under capitalism, money plays a major role.
The set is spread over two levels, which characters can use to escape conversation and attention from their family. The staircase means characters can either listen-in on downstairs conversation or make themselves unavailable, requiring others to yell, depending on their power dynamic. It allows for added complication in terms of space and communication and overall allows the themes of the script to split and spread in equally uncomfortable ways, mirroring the awkward set.
Stephen Karam’s script is both jumbled and rambling as representative of most family gatherings. Conversation compresses in moments of high emotion while everyone clambers to have their say, and then thins in tense silences or while characters are biding their time, finding recovery in solitude. Momo’s disconnected thoughts interrupt the stream of action and allow the Blakes to be distracted from their miserable reunion. Conversation operates as a wave of energy that the characters either feed into or are drained by, depending on who is taking the brunt of it. Karam is then able to carve out moments of quiet and calm that appear amplified in comparison to the noise and its these moments where characters reveal themselves.
While the majority of this story remains insular to the lives and history of the Blake family, the writing shines when drawn out into the larger world. A moment of true heartbreak comes when Brigid attempts to explain her deep sense of personal and professional failure when reading the “recommendation” letter her professor has been sending to everyone in the composing field out to her family. Jones wonderfully conveys the frustration and hurt many millennials feel when it becomes clear that the path of education and employment that they have been sold by previous generations will not come to fruition. Her father throws this back in her face, refusing to be compassionate or vulnerable because of his own failures.
If this energy could have resonated throughout the rest of the production, or even been sustained for minutes more on stage, The Humans would speak more directly to a global contemporary experience. As it stands, this production is distinctly American and the specificity with which this family is tied to 2014 America is at times limiting to the potential for powerful connection with a 2018 Australian audience.
The Humans is a challenging production to take on. Technically, the actors dealt deftly with the difficulty of contemporary naturalism. Michael in particular careened between bumbling father figure and victim of his own actions very well. His relationship with Adams on stage was palpable and gut-wrenching in the balance between stubbornness and resignation. Anthea Williams’s direction kept the momentum going and, with Kelsey Lee’s lighting design and Clemence Williams’s sound design, created genuine terror at the prospect of being alone with your imagination.
When they’re meant to be gathering to remember what they’re most thankful for, the Blake family can feel the weight of the world pressing in on them. There is deep uncertainty in the future and one’s ability to face it, even the promise of family seems to hang in the balance. The Humans is a story about today and whether or not yesterdays values will weather the storm.
The Humans is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from September 5th – October 7th.