Ensemble Theatre's 'The Humans' is a Searingly Tough Family Portrait

Ensemble Theatre's regional premiere of "The Humans" is a tale of family members struggling through life, but it's also powerfully honest and uncommonly rewarding

click to enlarge A family gathering in "The Humans" - PHOTO: RYAN KURTZ
PHOTO: Ryan Kurtz
A family gathering in "The Humans"

CRITIC'S PICK

A play titled The Humans doesn’t reveal much about its content. Aren’t most plays about humans? Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s set by Brian Mehring for its regional premiere of Stephen Karam’s Tony Award-winning play is an everyday, slightly below-average, two-story living space: Grungy off-white walls, few furnishings, a solitary barred window, two card tables and six folding chairs.

Dinner is about to happen, and the tiny orange-and-brown turkey decorations indicate Thanksgiving. We’re in America, for sure — in New York City’s Chinatown — a neighborhood devastated by flooding following Hurricane Sandy.

As the Blake family arrives at the apartment recently rented by Brigid (Becca Howell) and her boyfriend Richard (Jeff Groh), it’s apparent that they’re skeptical. They try to put a good face on it, but her disapproving parents, Deirdre (Christine Dye) and Erik (Tony Campisi) can’t contain their judgmental, dubious observations. They’ve driven three hours from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Erik’s senile, wheelchair-bound mother (Dale Hodges). Brigid’s cynical older sister Aimee (Jennifer Joplin) is along, too, with a dark cloud clearly hanging over her head.

The Blakes are a contentious family. Still, why has Karam labeled his play The Humans? My guess is that he wants us to see them as typical everyday folks, even though we soon learn they are plagued with an avalanche of fears that afflict many middle-class, blue-collar Americans — poverty, old age, unsatisfying jobs, ill health — and even more fundamental issues including the loss of love and death.

Nice-guy Richard makes conversation as he seeks to reduce the tension that keeps bubbling over. He mentions Quasar, a comic book he’s loved since he was a kid: “It’s about this species of like half-alien, half-demon creatures with teeth on their backs. … On their planet, the scary stories they tell each other … they’re all about us. The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans.”

There you have it: “Humans” are the source of scary stories. This might lead one to think that Karam’s play is depressing, but in this production, staged by veteran guest director Michael Evan Haney, glimmers of love and hope keep shining through, as rituals and family traditions are enacted.

Even though Hodges’ addled Momo never speaks coherently, a heartfelt email she sent before dementia is shared by the sisters, urging them to get beyond worrying. It concludes, “Dance more than I did. Drink less than I did. Go to church. Be good to everyone you love. I love you more than you’ll ever know.”

Distracted Erik has betrayed his marriage and lost his job; he’s overwhelmed by responsibility for his mother. Deirdre can’t stop eating and fretting about her daughters in New York City. Aimee’s longtime partner Carol has deserted her, her employer has told her she’s no longer needed, and her colitis is back with a vengeance. Brigid, an aspiring musician, is getting no traction in her search for meaningful work. They’re a family of Jonahs, admirably portrayed by veteran Cincinnati actors, beleaguered humans trying to survive while caring for each other.

Brigid’s apartment building rumbles with threatening, thundering noises. Erik and Aimee narrowly missed being victims of 9/11, and everyone is made skittish by the building’s ominous growls and thumps. Erik’s is plagued by tortured nightmares, but Richard tells him to embrace the dream of being lured into a tunnel. “Tunnels can just be stuff hidden from yourself, so passing through one … could be a favorable omen.”

Erik dodges this advice with a joke about fortunetelling, but as the story ends, he’s suddenly alone and in the dark with just one way out. It’s a frightening moment, but perhaps Erik is on his way to something promising. It’s hard to tell. The Humans isn’t a feel-good kind of show, but it’s a powerful glimpse at people who desperately need one another, clinging to hope.

Inspired by this play, ETC has assembled The Humans of Cincinnati, a collection of portraits and interviews with dozens of people from all walks of life throughout the area. These are on display at ETC and online at humansofcincinnati.com. Give it a look.


The Humans is being presented at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through Feb. 17: Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org.