When recent Tony Best Play Award-winning shows have arrived on our shores, they’ve tended to premiere in bigger houses. London’s National Theatre productions of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example, both toured the country playing larger venues, while the highly anticipated 2018 Tony winner Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will open in Melbourne’s 1450-seat Princess Theatre in January. The Humans, which took home the top prize for plays at the 2016 Tony Awards, is having its Australian premiere at one of Sydney’s most exciting venues for independent theatre – the Old Fitz Theatre, a 60-seat auditorium on the bottom level of Woolloomooloo’s Old Fitzroy Hotel.
Written by American playwright and screenwriter Steven Karam, The Humans is a kitchen sink drama that, on top of its Tony win, found itself a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in a ground floor/basement duplex apartment in Chinatown in New York City, it focuses on the Thanksgiving celebration of the Blakes, a middle-class family from Pennsylvania. Erik (Arky Michael) and Deirdre (Di Adams) are visiting the home their daughter, Brigid (Madeleine Jones), has just moved into with her partner, Richard (Reza Momenzada). Erik feels uneasy in the space because of its proximity to the site of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks and because of it having been in the path of Hurricane Sandy.
As the Thanksgiving festivities unfold, we learn more about the myriad challenges the members of the family – either separately or collectively – are facing. Erik’s elderly mother, ‘Momo’ (Diana McLean), who has travelled with her family to New York is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Aimee (Eloise Snape), the couple’s older daughter, a lawyer, is suffering from ulcerative colitis and her relationship with her long-time girlfriend, Carol, has recently ended. And Erik, well known in his home community in Scranton, has been embroiled in a scandal that has cost him dearly.
There’s a theme of dreams and the supernatural that is given potency by the unearthly sounds of an inner city building that we hear from time to time, adding to our general unease. Their unease becomes ours.
Karam’s 100-minute comedy-drama comprises a single real-time scene – and it’s totally absorbing from start to finish. The text always feels authentic and true to the characters we come to know. The interaction between the members of the Blake family creates an experience that, at some stage of the proceedings, will resonate with most audience members. These characters feel real and their problems indicative of the kinds of challenges many families in contemporary society face – this isn’t just their story. And, ultimately, despite the size of the struggles and the difficulties in having to confront them, we see the Blakes cope and go on with their lives, just as most in the same kinds of situations will do. This piece is a reflection on the kinds of obstacles that people routinely must absorb, but also the natural resilience inbuilt in us which tends to get us through the most difficult of times.
Anthea Williams, one of the best directors working in Sydney right now, has created a wonderful production to bring Karam’s piece to Australian audiences for the first time. There is an innate chemistry between the actors that makes them a completely convincing family unit. They are a strong ensemble who engage us from the outset. As the patriarch, Michael’s palpable apprehension rings true to a man in his situation who, after a life-changing event, has little idea of what his future holds. Adams is excellent as the loving wife and mother, warm-hearted, funny and vulnerable.
Jones’ portrayal of Brigid as pretentious but deeply insecure is highly credible; Snape is excellent and enormously sympathetic as the disconsolate lawyer who faces a tough decision with respect to her health; and Momenzada is affable and knowing as Brigid’s slightly older and more financially secure partner. As Erik’s infirm mother, McLean delivers possibly the best performance in this incredible group. Portraying a woman who has lived with dementia for four years, hers is a distressingly true-to-life characterisation of a person no longer able to properly communicate with those around her or engage with the world in the way she once did.
Jonathan Hindmarsh has built a detailed recreation of Brigid’s and Richard’s two-level apartment in the tiny theatre. The scale of it is arguably even a little too big for the space (meaning some views are partially obstructed at times), but it does facilitate an experience for those in the front row who’ll feel that they’re actually guests at the Blakes’ Thanksgiving table. Kelsey Lee’s lighting choices are subtle and unobtrusive, while Clemmie Williams’ sound design perfectly pushes forward the supernatural aspects of the story and plays an important role in making the audience feel on edge.
The Humans is a compelling work that paints an accurate picture of the general structure of life for most. We all make mistakes, we all encounter situations for which we’re not prepared and we’re all forced to make difficult decisions. Karam reminds us that, typically, we live to tell the tale.
THE HUMANS – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Playing now until October 6, 2018
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre (129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo, NSW)
Performance Times: Tuesday – Saturday: 8:00PM; Sunday: 5:00PM; Saturday Matinees: 29 Sep and 6 Oct: 2:00PM