Is something bothering you? Are you moving forward nevertheless? If you’re enjoying the good and shouldering the bad, you’re only human. Just have a look at the folks in Stephen Karam’s funny, realistic, and poignant play “The Humans,” the 2016 best-play Tony Award winner, now in a superb production from Walnut Street Theatre.
Karam, a Scranton native who squarely captures characters in fits of change, fills “The Humans” with them. He gives us a family from Scranton, celebrating Thanksgiving at the dingy lower-Manhattan apartment newly occupied by the younger daughter (portrayed by Alex Keiper). They come together there for Thanksgiving dinner — and like many people, they have much to be thankful for and plenty to worry about.
The younger daughter lives in this ground-level apartment with her boyfriend (Ibrahim Miari), who’s still in school at age 38. She herself scrapes by on minor jobs and although she’s been out of college a year or two, she can’t get a real career started. An older daughter (Jennie Eisenhower) is a lawyer who works in Philadelphia at the Cira Center. She’s ill and about to be unemployed.
The parents (Mary Martello and Greg Wood), work paycheck to paycheck back in Scranton and make less money than they feel they should, especially at their stage of life. They adore their daughters but are full of regrets that the girls aren’t what they wanted them to be — and that includes being faithfully and actively Catholic. (One of the mother’s housewarming gifts is a figurine of Mary. Her younger daughter clearly has no intention of displaying it in the new digs.) And a grandma in a deep stage of dementia (Sharon Alexander) is a blessing and a major burden.
Blessings combined with major burdens make this family, the Blakes, so real. If you cut through the smart, genuine dialogue and go directly into the heads of these characters, you’ll find people you know. You may even find yourself. That’s not a bad thing. That’s the human condition.
Bernard Havard, the Walnut’s longtime producing artistic director, takes the 100-minute one-act down a solid road, from its tense but loving little interchanges all the way to its ending, where (and this is not a spoiler) it’s obvious that life will go on. That’s obvious, frankly, from the very first lines, when we witness patterns of behavior steadily built over time, candid and quirky yet sealed by caring and love.
Sound familiar? The best part of Havard’s direction, which moves this Thanksgiving visit surely and swiftly, is the way it demonstrates the power of connection, especially family connection. This is no small triumph. Karam sometimes masks this power in his script, hiding it behind lines sure to draw laughter. He also gives this family plenty to chew on in addition to Thanksgiving dinner. The play’s mix of themes — struggling in big- and small-town America, raising one daughter who is gay, dealing with an elder parent who’s failing and constantly needy, trying to help repair the world (the mother works with refugees from Bhutan), and more — has everything but the good old kitchen sink, except that Roman Tatarowicz’s expansive two-level apartment set actually has a kitchen sink.
The ensemble acting comes so naturally, at times I felt like a voyeur looking in the window. And here’s a tip to watching the production: Take a close look to the sidelines when the parents, veteran actors Martello and Wood, are reacting to themselves and sometimes to each other. At these times, they generally say nothing. But their faces tell you two things: Changes are happening in this family. And like every change so far, they’ll somehow weather them.
“The Humans” runs through March 4 at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.