Review

The Humans: A thoughtful, funny take on modern family life

While there are lots of laughs in American playwright Stephen Karam’s 2014 play — a Tony winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, running now at the Royal MTC — there are darker notes in this look at what it means to be “the humans.”

Tony Award-winning ‘family thriller’ melds laughs, darker notes in Royal MTC production

From left: John Bourgeois, Heather Russell, Tom Keenan, Nicola Cavendish and Kate Besworth in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of The Humans. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

The title The Humans might make you think of a sitcom — it sounds a bit like The Honeymooners, The Jeffersons or The Simpsons.

And while there are lots of laughs in American playwright Stephen Karam's 2014 play — a Tony winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, running now at the Royal MTC — there are darker notes in this look at what it means to be "the humans."

It's a post-9/11 and post-recession play that probes deeply, and sometimes uncomfortably, into the deepest fears of middle America (and Canada — let's face it, we're not all that different in many ways). The result is a tense, tightly written and engrossing encounter with one family.

It centres on a Thanksgiving dinner at the new New York home of Brigid (Heather Russell) and Richard (Tom Keenan), her beau — though not husband, as her mother pointedly notes. They're hosting Brigid's parents, Deirdre (Nicola Cavendish) and Erik (John Bourgeois), who have trekked in from Scranton, Pa., where the solidly working-class couple remind their daughter she could enjoy a much higher quality of life.

Joining them are Brigid's sister Aimee (Kate Besworth) and Erik's mother, Momo (Jane Burpee).

Refreshingly for a family-based drama, The Humans seems more concerned with how this family manages to function rather than emphasizing its dysfunctional aspects. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

They are, in many ways, a typical family — but also one where everyone's got issues: Brigid is struggling with her music career, while Richard is struggling just to fit in with the in-laws.

Aimee, who has been through an awful break-up, is no longer on the "partner track" at her law firm and has some serious health problems to deal with. Deirdre has bad knees, Erik has a bad back and isn't sleeping, and Momo is in the late stages of dementia.

Karam has a point to make with all this misery. In a world where anything can be lost — your job, your money, your love, your health, your sleep, even your mind — what, if anything, really matters?

There's another layer here, too — Karam has described his play as a "family thriller," not a "family drama."

Some of that comes through classically spooky stuff — the lights in Brigid and Richard's home flicker out seeminly on their own, and unsettling sounds emanate from the bowels of the building. That's all marvellously conveyed through Hugh Conacher's sometimes dramatic lighting and Michael Wright's impressively disturbing sound design, nicely complementing Brian Perchaluk's attractive two-storey set.

Painfully, genuinely human

But The Humans also plays on more subtle tensions and fears — the economy, relationships and the basic fragility of what we think of as our lives.

Those fears come to the surface as the family's Thanksgiving dinner plays out as so many do — with bickering, joking, playful jabs and not-so-playful passive-aggressive digs, laughs and tears and, finally, the revelation of the secret a family member has clearly been holding back.

What makes Karam's family drama work where so many don't is, in fact, its humanity. He crafts characters who are flawed but still fully realistic, relatable and sympathetic. Refreshingly for a family-based drama, this play seems more concerned with how this family manages to function rather than emphasizing its dysfunctional aspects.

Their love for each other is imperfect, but it's clearly real and deep. This is not a family that's flawless, but neither are they monsters — they are, simply, human.

The Humans is a thoughtful, funny and smart take on what it means to be painfully, genuinely human — for better and for worse. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

That point shines in his sharply written dialogue, which conveys wonderfully the sense of people with an actual history in its rhythms, barbs and in-jokes.

Director Philip Akin's production capitalizes fully on the strengths of Karam's script. The rapid dialogue, often overlapping, can be tricky to orchestrate, but Akin's well-paced, 100-minute production makes it sing.

The six-person cast all handle the material with aplomb, but Cavendish's earthy take on Deirdre and Bourgeois's nuanced portrayal of the unvarnished Erik steal the show.

The Humans is a thoughtful, funny and smart take on what it means to be painfully, genuinely human — for better and for worse.

The Humans runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until April 14.