Northwestern Press

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Theater Review: Symbolizing ‘The Humans’ condition at Civic Theatre

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 by CAROLE GORNEY Special to The Press in Focus

The Lehigh Valley premiere of “The Humans” at Civic Theatre of Allentown through Feb. 23 hits a little too close to home as it peels away the layers of a typical family’s relationships and issues, and leaves the audience wondering what it had just experienced.

The one-act, approximately two-hour, drama written by Stephen Karam features members of a dysfunctional Scranton, Pennsylvania, family. The play opened on Broadway in 2016, and won that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. It was also a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Karam’s play, “Sons of the Prophet,” a comedy-drama about a Lebanese-American family, was also a Pulitzer finalist for drama in 2012. There’s a pattern here. Karam was raised in a Lebanese family in Scranton, so he knows of what he writes.

The humans Karam introduces us to are the Blakes, Erik and his wife Deidre; their daughters, Brigid and Aimee; grandmother Fiona “Momo” Blake, and Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Richard. It is Thanksgiving and the middle-class family has gathered for dinner at Brigid’s new basement apartment in Manhattan. The conflicts arise almost immediately.

The parents express their unhappiness with their daughters leaving home by criticizing the apartment. It is run-down; it isn’t safe; there’s not enough furniture.

Their gift to Brigid of a Virgin Mary statue is a not-so subtle jibe at their daughters for having abandoned their Catholic religion. From there, a plethora of general complaints arise about mortgage payments, the economy, salaries and jobs -- all packaged in witty repartee.

Gradually, though, the exchanges become more personal and acerbic.

During the Feb. 7 opening night performance reviewed for this review, it became clear that the Blakes are more than just an ordinary family with problems. They are meant to be more symbolic than real, to embody all “The Humans.”

“The Humans” director Will Morris, Civic Theatre Associate Artistic Director-Production Manager, has done an insightful job of guiding his actors through the transition from the ordinary to the symbolic, from the well-known to life’s painful secrets, all with an artful touch of the supernatural.

Pat Kelly is commanding in his role as the father, who evolves from a seemingly content family man to a failure overcome with despair. His wife, played realistically by Sue Sneeringer, hides her pain and strain beneath jokes and outbursts of biting sarcasm.

The most compelling acting performance was given by Becky Engborg as Momo, the wheelchair-bound grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease. With little movement and the ability to utter only indiscernible sounds, Momo’s presence on stage is a constant reminder of the frailty of human existence. She also is the recipient of sincere affection from her family.

Rounding out the polished cast are Zoli Heft (Brigid), the younger cynical musician daughter; Rachael Williams (Aimee), the lesbian daughter suffering from the recent loss of her girlfriend; and Colton Boyd (Richard), the boyfriend and object of the mother’s disdain.

Technical director and scenic designer Sam Roff’s stark white two-level set is intriguing. The apartment’s first floor projects the feeling of being temporary, like a waiting room. The upstairs bathroom with its light switch on the outside wall is well-used and a very clever device.

The on-stage lighting, or lack thereof, is inspired. Light, darkness and shadows are an integral part of the story. Is this hell, one might be tempted to ask, or is there hope in the light at the end of the hallway?

Tickets: Civic Theatre of Allentown box office, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 19th Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943