“The Humans,” which won the Tony for best play in 2016 and is opening tonight at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, is a family drama.
But it is not a melodrama. People will not be admitting to lurid affairs, incest or deep betrayals.
But don’t think drama doesn’t take place around Brigid Blake’s table, for it certainly does. Her family is coming for Thanksgiving dinner. When is there not a little drama around the Thanksgiving table?
Brigid (Julia Elberfeld) and boyfriend Rich (Brian Viera) are hosting their first Thanksgiving dinner in their new apartment in New York’s Chinatown.
Her parents, Erik and Deirdre Blake (Tim Spiese and Elizabeth Pattey), are coming from Scranton with Momo, Erik’s mother (Kath Goodwin), and sister Aimee (Megan Riggs), is coming from Philadelphia, where she is a lawyer.
The play, which is directed by Bob Breen, is set in real time and runs for about an hour and a half, so the Thanksgiving action is a bit accelerated.
“Brigid is having a great big show. She wants to show off her new apartment and her new boyfriend,” Eberfeld says.
Of course, things don’t go well.
We will recognize the conversation, as people talk over people and people cut off other people.
The kids make fun of their mother’s Catholic beliefs — she likes to bring Virgin Mary statues as housewarming gifts.
It isn’t malicious; it’s daughters having different ideas than their mother.
“It’s how people talk, how they act,” Pattey says.
“It’s naturalistic to a T,” Riggs says.
“At the same time, there’s not a wasted word in this play,” Spiese says. “The more I work with it, the more I like it.”
We discover early on that Aimee and Erik were at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was accompanying her to a job interview, and it took them hours to find each other.
“He’s having trouble dealing with that, though he keeps saying he’s OK. But he’s not OK,” Spiese says.
The play is not really about 9/11, which is a number of years in the past.
“But 9/11 is what set the boulder rolling in this family,” Riggs says.
“It frames what the fear is,” Spiese says. “There are a lot of laughs in this play, but there is a lot of dark, serious stuff. Still, you’re laughing.”
There is plenty of fear in the Blake family.
Erik Blake is a working-class guy. He’s in charge of maintenance at a private school. Deirdre has been an office manager for two years. For a long time, they led a comfortable enough middle-class existence.
But now, money is an issue, as it is with way too many middle-class people these days. Fear, insecurity and uncertainty about the future flow through everyone’s veins.
Erik’s mother is in a wheelchair and has dementia, but they can’t afford help to care for her.
Aimee worries about losing her job.
They are not here to destroy each other.
“You can tell they all love each other,” Riggs says.
“It’s, ‘I love you but I don’t have to like you right now,” Elberfeld says.
“Everyone is worried about everything,” Pattey says.
Erik believed in the American dream. Now, he’s not sure.
“I thought I’d be settled now,” Spiese says.
Brigid is working as a bartender and drowning in college debt.
Ed Fernandez, the artistic director of Ephrata Performing Arts Center, notes that the play affects people differently, depending on where they are in their lives.
“What (playwright) Steve Karam has done so beautifully is have a show that speaks individually to everyone,” Riggs says.
The play is naturalistic in more ways than one. The cast must eat an entire Thanksgiving meal through the run of the show.
“It’s hard,” Elberfeld says. “You have to think, if I put this in my mouth will I be able to say the line I need to say. There is chew choreography here.”
Charles Isherwood, of the New York Times, called “The Humans” “blisteringly funny, bruisingly sad and altogether wonderful.”