American Theater Company. By Stephen Karam. Directed by PJ Paparelli. With Keith Kupferer, Hanna Dworkin, Kelly O'Sullivan, Sadieh Rifai, Lance Baker, Jean Moran. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
"Lay down your fears and raise your glass," exhorts the old tune that's a traditional singalong at the Blakes' family gatherings. As Stephen Karam's sharply observed new drama gradually reveals, the Blakes are saddled with a heavy load of fears this Thanksgiving.
Daughter Brigid (Kelly O'Sullivan) is hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in the ground-level duplex she just moved into with boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker) in New York's Chinatown. Her parents, Erik (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), have driven in from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Erik's dementia-addled mother (Jean Moran) in tow, while Brigid's sister Aimee (Sadieh Rifai) is in from Philadelphia.
Mom and dad are instinctively spooked by the city, worried about the safety of the neighborhood, the bars on the windows and the wisdom of Brigid's moving in with her boyfriend, whom they like but clearly aren't ready to consider part of the family. Aimee has the opposite problem; she's just been broken up with by her longtime girlfriend, whose conspicuous absence hangs over the gathering.
Both daughters are facing career problems, Richard is anxious about fitting in and several family members are dealing with health issues. And Erik, jumpy from several nights of poor sleep, keeps getting spooked by the noises of the city—the laundry room down the hall, the trash compactor out back, and the frequent loud bumps and clangs coming from the apartment upstairs, where the Chinese lady who lives there seems to be running a bowling alley or perhaps a small iron forge.
Brigid and Richard assure him it's just part of urban living. But as the family members' various worries are revealed, the intrusions grow more jarring and light bulbs start burning out, we start to wonder if there isn't something more sinister at work.
With the action taking place in real time on David Ferguson's bilivel set, there are often multiple conversations going on at once; who gets told what and in earshot of whom reveals as much about these characters' relationships as the information they're conveying.
Karam, who explored a somewhat less traditional family dynamic in last season's Pulitzer finalist Sons of the Prophet, is in rare form here, showing a really remarkable ear for the way families can converse via the millionth teasing recounting of an old story as much as directly addressing the topic at hand. For all of the characters' woes, this is a warm, funny, sharply observed portrait of their abiding connections with one another, even as things like health, financial worries, job anxiety, generational attitudes about faith and all those other modern-day bumps in the night ever evolve.
That makes it a terrific vehicle for the kind of remarkable ensemble cast that Chicago is so good at assembling. Many of the actors here have helped director PJ Paparelli and Karam, a writer who's made American Theater Company his Chicago home, shape these characters throughout the play's development; in some cases, as with ATC ensemble members O'Sullivan and Rifai, he was writing with them in mind.
Perhaps that's why Karam chose to premiere The Humans here, even with a higher-profile production at New York's Roundabout Theatre Company already on the books for next year; perhaps it's why Roundabout agreed to let him. With the kind of deeply honest, intensely connected, lived-in performances on display here, we've got an evening at the theater worth giving thanks for.