A family teeters on the brink of financial, emotional and physical collapse over Thanksgiving dinner in The Humans, at Novato Theater Company through Sept. 29. Stephen Karam’s Tony Award–winning script is a grueling exercise in uncomfortable realism, offering an unsettling glimpse into the lives of recognizable characters with acutely relatable problems.
The Blakes are an average family grappling with the horrors of being human in modern–day America. Matriarch Deidre (Laura J. Davies) has devoted decades to a thankless, underpaying job. She struggles with her weight and feels slighted by her daughters. Husband Erik (David Francis Perry) has bizarre nightmares and seems elusively preoccupied with worry. They both tend to his ailing mother “Momo” (Marilyn Hughes) as her dementia worsens, unable to afford help with her care.
Oldest daughter Aimee (Alicia Kraft) suffers from chronic disease, a devastating break-up and bad news at work. Younger sister Brigid (Olivia Brown) is strapped with student debt and tends bar to survive in New York City. She just moved into a dreary Chinatown duplex with boyfriend Richard (Ron Chapman). It’s a two-story unit on the ground and basement levels of an old building with thin walls, complete with neighbors who make startling banging noises throughout the night. The group converges in the dark, bare apartment to eat turkey at a makeshift table set with paper plates.
Cue the family drama.
Director Patrick Nims struggles with pacing, but gets solid performances from a talented cast, all excellent in challenging roles. Chapman brings a welcome, calming presence. Hughes is haunting, and utterly believable, as Momo. Her agitated outbursts and vacant expressions will be painfully familiar to anyone who’s watched a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s. Kraft evokes compassion as Aimee, who, despite her hardships, remains the sanest one in the bunch. The mother-daughter and sisterly dynamics are spot-on, with moments both cringeworthy and endearing.
At 90 minutes with no intermission, the one-act show proceeds in real time but manages to feel a good deal longer, thanks to an overstuffed script where nothing much actually happens. It’s a rather gloomy and protracted affair helped along by a few laughs and heartwarming moments, building slowly to an anticlimactic and confounding finish. But the meditation is clear. It’s a scary and unpredictable world where one mistake or twist of fate can sink us. Give thanks for the love that helps us through.