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Human Life, Strangely Familiar

November 14, 2017


Stephen Karam set out to write a play about the existential fears that terrorize our nights, prickling our souls with questions that may never be answered.  He had been thinking about the thick fear that settled over Americans after 9/11 and again after the Great Recession. With these two cataclysmic events, American life became a stew of anxieties: political, personal, cultural, and financial. With Sigmund Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny” on his mind, Karam wanted to delve into the questions of why some stories fill us with greater sense of dread and horror than others, and why sometimes things that are familiar become very unsettling and strange.

Originally intending to write a thriller – similar to Deathtrap or Dark at the Top of the Stairs – Karam invested each of his six characters with a combination of fears, setting in motion a play fueled by dread. Yet somehow his characters developed minds of their own and they insisted that the play be driven by empathy, humor, and compassion instead. The result was The Humans, a play with a boisterous, loving heart and an uneasy soul.

The gathering of the Blakes on Thanksgiving Day will be recognizable to anyone whose family celebrates holidays together: full of teasing and laughter, tender support, unwanted advice, hurt feelings, oddball traditions, and the complicated bonds of family, it could be any American home movie. The Blakes clearly love each other deeply and will always have each other’s back, but that doesn’t mean they can resist the urge to be cruel. Joe Mantello, who directed the premiere at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company in 2015, said of The Humans, “This is what love looks like: tender, vicious, hopeful, kind.”

The Blakes gather in youngest daughter Brigid’s and her boyfriend Richard’s as-yet unfurnished new apartment. Brigid’s parents Erik and Deirdre, along with her sister Aimee, and their dementia-ridden grandmother Momo, have come to celebrate the holiday on folding chairs and paper plates. Not yet a home, the apartment isn’t really comfortable for anyone – there aren’t many places to sit, necessities and comforts are still in packing boxes, light bulbs seem to have a mind of their own. Just outside the apartment walls, unseen things thud and creak, and strange shadows flicker past the windows. It’s probably just the neighbors, and yet…

The idea of the uncanny has been explored by many psychologists, including Ernst Jentsch, who wrote in 1906 about fears that create “doubts [of] an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” Freud’s ideas of it focused in part on the uneasiness experienced when something very familiar – such as a light bulb burning out  – seems to have a hidden meaning. For Erik Blake especially, the strange animation of Brigid’s new apartment is distressing. It is clear from the beginning that he is under secret stresses; snatches of overheard conversations with Deirdre hint at something urgent that he must reveal to his daughters today; he confides in Richard a recurring nightmare about a faceless woman. Are the strange disturbances of the apartment somehow expressions of his personal turmoil? The thumping from upstairs, the burnt out light bulb, and the rumbling of the trash compactor are all normal occurrences  – especially for a New York apartment – but they rise and fall through the play in just eerie enough ways that they seem unnatural. The strange disturbances are only minutely off: natural but unnatural at the same time. Compounded with Erik's own inner turmoil they become uncanny expressions of human life in ways we are intimately familiar with.

In The Humans, Stephen Karam offers a tender, funny examination of a middle class American family. Although each one wrestles with personal fears and struggles to be happy with a not-quite-successful life, they have each other to lean on for comfort and confidence. Even when the mysterious, inchoate world threatens, as Erik says, “The Blakes bounce back, that’s what we do.” 

by Luan Schooler, Director of Dramaturgy and New Play Development

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