Theatre Calgary’s The Humans nails the nuanced reality while not quite delivering in its darkness

If you’re looking for a definition of the kitchen sink drama — to the point where there is actually a functioning kitchen sink — look no further than The Humans at Theatre Calgary. This isn’t a plot-driven narrative: Brigid and her boyfriend Richard have recently moved into an apartment in New York’s Chinatown. They have invited Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother over for Thanksgiving. The family arrives, eats a meal, and goes home.

In a sense, it’s thoroughly reminiscent of any Thanksgiving meal in any medium-sized family: someone has just gone through a bad break-up, someone feels judged for their life choices, someone has bowel issues. The style is hyper-realistic, with overlapping lines and the contemporary, “Yeah, no, I agree” type of idiom that often doesn’t find its way into scripted dialogue without careful observation of reality.

Throughout the play, however, there is a feeling of impending doom hovering at the edges. It is clear early on that Brigid’s father Erik has something weighing on his mind, and disclosure happens in fits and starts as the meal goes on, interrupted often by other family dramas, large and small. There are frequent references to the attack on the Twin Towers, which occurred blocks from the apartment where the play is set. There is an ongoing tension between the religious and the scientific, framed both as explanations for the trials that have afflicted the family and as opposing strategies for coping.

In the exchanges between the family members as they prepare and eat dinner, there is a sense of historic patterns of communication being played out for the hundredth time, and the silences  are redolent of unmet expectations and unspoken judgements. But for some reason, the “terror” that some commentators have described as their response to the 2016 Tony award-winning play never quite materializes in this production. There are themes of aging, illness, death, and poverty that emerge and re-emerge in a growing maelstrom of the kind of stresses that seem to afflict most humans these days. And that’s a thought-provoking reflection — but too familiar to be terrifying.

The elaborate set is built with two levels connected by a spiral staircase, and at times, action is happening in two or three rooms of the two-level set simultaneously. Director Vanessa Porteous and assistant director Christopher Hunt do a masterful job of ensuring a fluid transition from one vignette to the next, and orchestrate the overlapping dialogue so that there is a filmic quality to the shifting focus. But the basement apartment set is described by playwright Stephen Karam as “effortlessly uncanny”, and actually just looks uncannily like a place I used to live. Until the final moments, the staging remains firmly rooted in the realistic, even as power outages and burnt-out light bulbs plunge the scene into increasing literal darkness.

Ric Reid as Erik is visibly haunted by his secret throughout the piece, and this is where the most heightened sense of dramatic tension is evident. But his eventual revelation to his daughters feels anticlimactic, and left me wondering why he saved this discussion for Thanksgiving dinner. The family matriarch with dementia, grandmother “Momo,” functions as something of a harbinger of doom as she blurts out accidentally prophetic statements in the midst of sleepy gibberish. Barbara Gordon’s performance is perfectly pointed without being over-the-top. Shekhar Paleja (Richard) plays the newcomer to the family with an earnestness that is appealing, and his playful rapport with Lili Beaudoin as Brigid is a refreshingly simple bright spot in the otherwise dark and complex comedy. Beaudoin, Ayla Stephen and Elinor Holt embody a comfortable bond as sisters Brigid and Aimee and their mother Deirdre, and their interruptions of each other and finishing each other’s sentences appear effortless.

But there seems to be something missing in the trajectory of emotional revelation over the course of the one-act play. Karam has talked about the inspiration he took from Freud’s The Uncanny: “…everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” In none of the characters do I feel their deeply-held fears coming to light — there is increasing revelation of factual detail about their troubled lives, but they all seem similarly cynical and disillusioned in the first scene as they do in the last. Perhaps that’s why it feels more like a nuanced snapshot of a troubled middle-class family than a thriller.

(Photo courtesy Trudie Lee.)

The Humans runs at the Max Bell Theatre in Arts Commons until March 31.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.