Roseanne may be back on television, championing the middle class, but on stage at least, the American Dream just doesn’t quite resonate like it once did. At least that is how it felt at the opening of Stephen Karam’s The Humans at the Stanley Theatre last night.
Perhaps it is the Trump effect. Nearly a year before Donald Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, Stephen Karam’s dark comedy first appeared on stage. Even as the Trump reality began to take shape as the play transferred to Broadway, there remained an optimism. A nation still recovering from the blackness of 1987 could watch themselves reflected on stage, but rather than fear and foreboding, it was an opportunity to look forward to better things.
Today is a very different world from just two years ago, as The Humans opened to critical praise in New York. The hopefulness, the idea that, as a nation, Americans could overcome anything were suddenly in question. There was a new regime in power, one who claimed to be backing the characters represented in Karam’s play. The reality though has been very different, and seeing the middle class still struggling just doesn’t have the same impact.
In an age of exponential change, could it be that The Humans has already been made irrelevant, or at the very least, it is fading quickly alongside memories of the “Yes We Can” mantra of just a few years ago. After all, it has been sixteen years since 9/11, Hurricane Sandy has been replaced by other natural disasters, and millennials are already being replaced by Generation Z.
Strip away the vanishing zeitgeist of two generations, and you’re left with just another family stage drama. Gathering for Thanksgiving (the American one, obviously), The Humans is the story of the Blake family, gathered at the new Chinatown apartment of daughter/sister, Brigid and her live-in boyfriend, Richard. Joining the two are boomer parents Erik and Deirdre, sister Aimee, and Erik’s mother “Momo”, who is suffering from dementia.
From here it becomes standard fare. Bickering, secrets revealed, illness and every manner of familial dysfunction fills every corner of the show’s 90-minutes. In fact, Karam attempts to pack so much into his one-act play, characters over-talk each other and the action happens on two stories of Drew Facey’s wonderfully realized set, often simultaneously.
Trying desperately to make it all work though is a terrific ensemble. Under the direction of Amiel Gladstone, Kevin McNulty and Nicola Lipman find the reality of two boomers facing crisis at a late stage in life. As the two sisters, Briana Buckminster and Samantha Rose Richard are well matched, and Parm Soor, as the only non-blood relative, has some wonderful moments as he tries to insert himself into the family. In one of the show’s toughest roles, Gina Stockdale is convincing as the wheelchair bound, Momo.
But beyond a mood, and some terrific performances from this cast, The Humans never quite lives up to its potential. Perhaps it is in our exhaustion, as we watch the horrors of what is happening to our neighbours to south in the 24-hour news cycles and five-second soundbites, we are becoming numb to the struggles of the everyday. Is it a misguided Canadian superiority complex which detaches us from finding relevance in the American middle class? Perhaps those are our own monsters. Perhaps it is, for better, or more disturbingly for worse, what it means to be human these days?
The Humans by Stephen Karam. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until April 22. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.