Tony Winning “The Humans” Brings Family Drama to Chicago Stage

There is a notion rumbling around the internet that the number one killer of relationships is not arguments about money or sex but unmet expectations.  Whether with a partner or a friend, a parent or a child, individuals can have vastly different ideas about the way a relationship should go.  Friendships expand and contract and sometimes simply end because the parties just see the world differently.  The rom-com, fairy tale “Happily ever after” rarely happens because the people in the relationship have vastly different ideas about what happily ever after actually is.

Likewise, the parent-child relationship is susceptible to the unmet expectation.  Parents expect that their child will realize their potential, find a mate that will somehow complete them and fit flawlessly into the family, be smarter, work harder, do better than the generation before.  Represent the family. Make them proud. Won’t precede their parents in death.  Children expect that their parents will remain constant:  that they will always make smart decisions about money. That they always have and always will remain faithful to their spouse.  That they will be healthy and strong and wise forever.  But at some point, reality sets in:  Son is never going to be an astronaut.  Daughter is never going to wear that white dress.  Mom has found a new soulmate and is never coming home.  Dad is walking slower, talking slower, forgetting things, making bad choices.

The hard truth about being a human is that it’s messy. 

Confession:  I didn’t like the play The Humans.  I should’ve.  It won four Tony awards in 2016, including Best Play, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Scenic Design.  It was a favorite to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 (and may have won but for a little show called Hamilton).  It starred veteran character actress, Pamela Reed (Kindergarten Cop, NCIS: Los Angeles) and the always brilliant Richard Thomas (The Waltons, The Americans).  The daughters are played by Daisy Egan and Therese Plaehn, who are very talented actresses. It was directed by Tony award winning director, Joe Mantello.  It has been a critical darling, lauded as “uproarious, hopeful and heartbreaking.”  But I didn’t like it.

Set on a recent Thanksgiving Day in New York City, the Blake family has gathered to celebrate the holiday at the “new” apartment of their younger daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard.  Eric and Dierdre Blake and his mother “Momo” have driven in from Pennsylvania to see their daughters, Aimee and Brigid.  The moving van has not even arrived to the dilapidated pre-war building in lower Manhattan, so turkey is shared on folding tables and chairs. By all estimations, they are a typical, happy American family.  Eric works at a school, Dierdre is a secretary, Aimee is an attorney and Brigid has moved to New York to follow her dream of becoming a working musician.  The day starts with nostalgic stories and songs of Thanksgivings past, but as the wine and beer starts to flow, so do inconvenient truths about life.  Aimee is going through a hard break up with her longtime girlfriend.  Eric has made some bad decisions.  Dierdre is slowing down physically.  Momo is experiencing acute dementia.  Brigid will probably never make a living as a musician, despite her talent.

I didn’t like this family.  I found them to be grating.  I didn’t really care about what happened to them.  I didn’t like the ending.  It was weird. I couldn’t find the uproarious part.  Or the hopeful part.  I didn’t want to write about it.  I like plays with a happy ending.  Or at least a defined conclusion.  This didn’t have that.  The best thing that I could think to say about the play was that it was short, coming in at 90 minutes with no intermission.  It had a stupid name and lousy characters and I didn’t like it.

So it was strange to me that I couldn’t stop thinking about this play and these characters.  The more I ruminated on the play, the more connected I felt to it.  Not to the Blakes, but to the idea that every family, every relationship goes through these transitions:  that the constants in life are rarely constant. That disappointment that comes from unmet expectations of family is deeper than any other.  That unmet expectations are the constant and how we react to disappointment is the real marrow of life. Suddenly, the Blakes started to become relatable.

In the play, after Thanksgiving dinner and just before the parents and grandmother are due to start their journey back to Pennsylvania, Eric reveals a secret to his daughters.  It is clear throughout the play that the weight of this revelation is hanging heavy on him and he knows that it will change everything. He has made some unfortunate choices that will have grave consequences that will affect everyone in the family.  He and Dierdre have already started working through the implications but not without some difficulty.  The confession clearly rocks the daughters to their core and the play ends with some ambiguity about how it will resolve. The daughters are angry and hurt and shocked. Will this family work their way through it?  We just don’t know. 

Of course, that is exactly how it is in life.  You have faith that the time and laughter and tears and prayer and arguments and make ups that you put into a relationship will be enough to carry it through the hard stuff:  the bad decisions and bad health.  But there aren’t any guarantees.  Because we are humans and being human is messy. 

And maybe the point of art is less about entertaining me for an evening and more about making me consider bigger themes.

I find myself wanting to check in with the Blakes next Thanksgiving to see how it turned out for them.  I’m pulling for them because they are all of us.






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