Review: In electrifying ‘The Humans,’ Fresno City gives thanks for quirks of the species
Well-worn fact: Humans are scared of monsters.
But consider: Wouldn’t monsters be just as scared of humans?
This thought is a mere blip in Stephen Karam’s exceptionally well written play “The Humans.” (Two more performances remain at Fresno City College, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7.) It bubbles up when one character mentions the plot of a comic book in which monsters thought that humans were, well, the monsters. And doesn’t that make sense? From a completely objective standpoint, we are a bit odd looking, with gangly appendages and oversized heads. We can be thoughtless, manipulative, violent and sometimes just crazy, too. On first introduction, wouldn’t a monster have cause to worry?
Except for the brief mention of the comic-book plot, there’s no sci-fi or overt horror element to “The Humans.” It is, on one level, deceptively simple: A somewhat troubled, somewhat fragile, somewhat regular family with grown daughters gathers for what becomes — no surprise — a somewhat troubled, somewhat fragile and somewhat regular Thanksgiving dinner. Most Americans are intimately familiar with the ritual. Holiday meals can be combustible affairs, as far-flung relatives find themselves in close proximity and old hurts and alliances reignite.
But underlying this typical domestic narrative is a sense of anthropological detachedness laced with an underlying dread. In the hands of veteran director Charles Erven, who leads a stellar local cast, this brisk and riveting show is subtle but pungent, like a bad smell from outside that seeps in even when you put a towel under the door.
The acting and direction is particularly fine. Veteran actor Leslie Martin gives us a nuanced view of the mother, Deirdre, whose wobbly self-confidence is veiled by a steady stream of cheery platitudes, small-town gossip and pleading digs toward her daughters. Another veteran, James Knudsen, as the father, is a wannabe peacemaker (“Be nicer to your Mom,” he admonishes) with a brutal mean streak. A crack he makes about his wife wanting the cupcake with the most frosting drops into the conversation like a cruel arrow shot from afar.
The rest of the cast is an intriguing mix of experienced and student performers. I saw Brandi Martin and Christy Ania Hathaway, both veterans, play the daughters, and they were in fine form. (In other performances, Martin alternates with Katherine Maitre.) Alternating the role of the younger sister’s boyfriend are Vernon Lee Jones III (whom I saw in a strong performance) and Joshua Taber. Also alternating roles are Karina Balfour (another strong showing) and Lauren Colvin as the family’s grandmother.
Christina McCollam-Martinizez’s scenic and lighting design and Johnny Cano’s sound design go a long way toward providing that underlying dread I mentioned. The play is set in a bland but somehow ominous feeling two-level basement apartment in New York’s Chinatown. Above, a neighbor makes terrible clanging noises that made me think of the gods rolling thunder across the sky. There are human explanations for why things happen in the show — or are there? This is no jump-a-minute terror romp but more of a moody atmospheric piece with the potential to erupt.
(Also, let’s note one more time that this is the last show for Fresno City’s Debra Erven, whose costume and makeup design in this show and hundreds of others has elevated local theater for decades.)
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There are some levels of nuance in Karam’s script — which was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist — that I don’t think this production reaches. The relationship between the two daughters is not as edgy as I think it should be. (Disclosure: I saw the production in Chicago before it moved to Broadway). And the theme of class (and class envy), as exemplified by the father both toward his daughters and his potential son-in-law, seems underdeveloped in this production.
But, overall, “The Humans” is a vivid, assertive and disturbing show that might make you think twice about human behavior. Monsters, beware. We’re unpredictable.