The first character to take the stage in Stephen Karam’s Tony award-winning play, “The Humans,” at Houston’s Alley Theatre, says nothing for several long moments.
Hesitancy pervades every tentative movement from Erik Blake (Steve Key), as he takes a look around the lower Manhattan apartment of his daughter Brigid (Elizabeth Stahlmann).
As an audience member, it made me a little nervous, a little unsure of what to expect, which was exactly the right mindset for viewing Karam’s play, written to capture the free-floating angst first felt collectively in the U.S. after Sept. 11.
For the next hour and 40 minutes, the Blake family Thanksgiving gathering unfolds with humor and discomfort, as the characters’ secret disappointments and struggles dribble out on stage like spilled giblet gravy.
Illness, financial insecurity, dementia, depression and despair lie beneath the surface of well-placed family jabs, generational divides, sentimental traditions, and the general chaos of a modern-day family gathering in this play, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama that was named The Tony Award for Best Play the same year.
Elizabeth Bunch, a member of the Alley’s Resident Company, who plays daughter, Aimee, may be the play’s most reliable laugh, despite revealing a dire medical condition during the course of the play.
As Erik, Key attempts to hide in plain sight, as a father starting to crumble under the weight of dread, offering uninspiring conversation, bad jokes and overt devotion to his elderly mother, Momo, (Annalee Jefferies).
Confined to a wheelchair, Momo’s garbled speech and confusion infuse the play with the sad reality of a family member transformed by dementia.
Mom Deidre (Sharon Lockwood) is over-extended, over-generous with her time and, it turns out, overwrought for good reason. She and Brigid go head to head over the inconsequential, instead of facing issues head on.
Christopher Salazar (Richard Saad) is Brigid’s live-in boyfriend, who is aging toward a trust fund with issues of his own.
This brutally real family portrait directed, by Brandon Weinbrenner, is funny, believe it or not, much in the same way as when real life turns horrible, and humor happens just the same.
“The Humans,” both hopeful and heartbreaking, runs through March 24.
Cover photo Lynn Lane