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(l. to r.) Alicia Kraft as Aimee Blake, Laura J. Davies as Deirdre Blake, David FrancisPerry as Erik Blake and Marilyn Hughes (foreground) as Fiona "Momo" Blake.
Photos by Fred Deneau
Review by Judith M. Wilson
Life doesn’t always turn out the way people expect. It’s a truth of the human condition that Stephen Karam explores in “The Humans,” currently playing at Novato Theater Company, and he does it in the context of Thanksgiving dinner, a familiar format for bringing family grievances to the fore.
The Blake family has more than enough to deal with, with literally every member experiencing some kind of crisis, and resolutions are elusive. Dinner is scheduled to take place at the new apartment of daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard. Her parents Deirdre and Erik arrive from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Erik’s ailing mother in tow, while her sister Aimee, a lawyer, comes from Philadelphia. The carping starts almost immediately, as Erik picks fault with the apartment, which is admittedly in a rundown part of Chinatown. but it is all Brigid and Richard can afford. Aimee is dealing with career and health problems as well as romantic disappointment, and Deirdre and Erik have issues that lay simmering beneath the surface.
The actors do a fine job of capturing the nuances of their characters with adept direction from Patrick Nims. Olivia Brown plays Brigid Blake, who is in the unenviable position of trying to please everyone, and she conveys the frustration she feels at her parents’ not-so-subtle criticism. Alicia Kraft as Aimee makes her sadness clear through expressions as well as dialog, especially during a phone call that turns out to be a real downer. Laura J. Davis, playing Deirdre, shows the hurt she feels in an incident with her daughters without saying a word. David Francis Perry is a man with a burden, as his wife prods him to reveal a secret to his daughters, and his reluctance shows in both his tone and body language. Ron Chapman plays Brigid’s boyfriend Richard, and he’s patient, but never fully engaged in the family bickering, even when he’s the topic of conversation. Marilyn Hughes has perhaps the most dramatic role as Momo, Erik’s mother. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and spends much of her time silent or sleeping, but she has some priceless moments—one when a song triggers a memory and another when she erupts in temper and frustration, in stark contrast to her usual behavior.
Scenic designer Michael Walravens created a two-story set for the play, and it works particularly well to give the sense of a dingy basement apartment. It also shows the difficulty of getting Momo and her wheelchair from one floor to another, reflecting life’s challenges and its ups and downs. Mysterious thumps coming from the woman in the apartment above are unexplained, just as many of the bumps in life are inexplicable.
The story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc, and the audience has to work to find relevance in a series of events that have a common frame, but aren’t necessarily related. As a whole, they show the emotions individuals experience when they disappoint the people they care about most or can’t measure up to their expectations. Other than being sources of dissatisfaction for the characters, the challenges they face don’t have any clear or satisfying outcome, and that was likely Karam’s intent. He shows that despite the upsets and misunderstandings, families stick together, and members have the ability to forgive and love each other when the going gets rough. That’s what makes life meaningful, and it gives the audience something to think about.
The Humans launches Novato Theater Company's 100th season. Shows take place Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Sunday, September 29.
Future performances in the 100th season are the following:
Sweeney Todd, October 24 to November 17
Our Town, January 23 to February 16
The Who's "Tommy," March 12 to April 5
Sordid Lives, May 21 to June 14