Yes, the Blake family of Stephen Karam’s The Humans is dysfunctional, but what onstage clan is not? Still, most of them are so wrapped up in their own troubles, they are oblivious to their collective difficulties. In a work that is alternately dramatic, comic and more than a little creepy, it would be the rare audience member who does not identity with this clan on some level.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Tony Award-winning play of two seasons ago, you can understand why GableStage’s Joseph Adler grabbed The Humans for his challenge-us Coral Gables audience. And with his usual impeccable eye for casting and go-for-the-throat direction, the result is a production that delivers a stunning, stark portrait of contemporary urban family life. Complete with things that go bump in the night.
If anything, The Humans fits into the family reunion genre. The Blakes are rarely together, since parents Deidre (Elizabeth Dimon) and Erik (Michael Gioia) live outside of Scranton, Pa., while their two daughters – attorney Aimee (Meredith Barton) and her younger sister, part-time student/part-time bartender Brigid (Diana Garle) – have relocated to New York City.
But on this Thanksgiving, Brigid and her boyfriend Richard (Alex Alvarez) have invited the entire brood, including Brigid’s dementia-addled, wheelchair-bound grandmother, Momo (Carol Caselle), to their new Chinatown tenement apartment, an awkward basement duplex that becomes a character in its own right.
The family catches each other up on events in their lives, mostly disappointments and setbacks. Aimee, for instance, is still getting over her recent break-up with her longtime lesbian partner, compounded by the news that her law firm has rejected her for partnership. Deirdre, an underpaid and underappreciated office manager, bemoans the treatment afforded her by her much younger bosses. Brigid aspires to be a music composer, but finds a lack of reception to her talents in the industry. And all of this pales next to the shattering news that Erik, a longtime custodian at a Pennsylvania parochial school, eventually shares.
Richard is the reunion outsider, unfamiliar with the family’s holiday traditions, and made to feel unwelcome in his own home for not tying the marital knot with Brigid. He says all the right things to ingratiate himself with the Blakes, but to no avail.
Even the apartment seems to be rebelling against him. Frequent creaks and thumps can be heard from upstairs and the electricity proves intermittent at best.
Under Joe Adler’s meticulous direction, these curious touches coalesce into an unnerving whole. Yet he knows to place the production’s focus on the acting, led by Dimon as disparaging Deidre, a soured Earth mother, and Gioia as distracted Erik, biding his time until he lets the family in on his secret.
Meredith Bartmon makes the most of her GableStage debut, as embittered Aimee and while she has few lines to say and the ones she has are mostly gibberish, keep an eye on Caselle, who brings unexpected dignity to senile Momo.
Playwright Karam, whose Sons of the Prophet and Speech and Debate were also produced at GableStage, will be receiving productions of The Humans all across the country this year. Presumably many of those will be met with head-scratching on the audience’s part. He is not one to telegraph his intentions and tends to be stingy with plot, but in a compelling way, he has drawn a portrait of what it means to be human in America at this point in time.
THE HUMANS, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday, Nov. 5. $55-$60. 305-445-1119.