The Midcoast Actors’ Studio in Belfast again brings cutting-edge theater to Maine in its production of Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” but director Erik Perkins fails to illuminate the cast’s humanity.
The winner of the 2016 Tony Award for best play, this play is the story of a family gathering at Thanksgiving in which old wounds are reopened, secrets are revealed and anxiety about the future is served up for dessert instead of pumpkin pie.
Erik (Bart Shattuck) and his wife, Diedre (Jeralyn Shattuck), drive from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to have dinner with their daughters, Aimee (Katie Glessner) and Brigid (Danielle Bannister) at the Manhattan apartment Brigid shares with her boyfriend, Richard (Rob Bywater). Erik’s mother, nicknamed Momo (Christine West), who suffers from dementia and uses a wheelchair, is also a guest.
The 90-minute one-act show is an amusing condemnation of the tarnished American Dream. Every character’s plans have been thwarted in one way or another, either by their own mistakes, failing health or the decision to settle for less than they’d hoped for. In the end, each seemed more a caricature than a fully realized human being.
During Sunday’s matinee at the Crosby School, Perkins and his cast worked hard to illuminate the frailty of the human condition, a central theme of Karam’s work. Yet, the cast failed to create a tight ensemble, something that has been a hallmark of the company’s previous productions, especially “The Crucible” and “Cabaret.”
While every actor gave equally fine performances something that afternoon just did not gel. Much of the humor fell flat, in part because the audience numbered about 25 people and laughter did not turn out to be contagious.
The other problem with the play is the ending, when the lights go out one by one and a character walks off stage toward a bright light. Are they all dead? Are their lives so insignificant that they aren’t worth illuminating? Given the realism with which the family was portrayed, the ending feels like a scene from one of Harold Pinter’s absurdist family dramas like “The Birthday Party.”
The Shattucks, husband and wife off-stage, are convincing as long-married couple Erik and Deirdre. Like a pair of favorite sweaters, they wear this couple’s discomfort at not being in their own home for the holiday and not knowing what to make of Brigid’s “garden” apartment that overlooks an alley — or her new boyfriend.
Bannister and Glessner are believable as grown sisters who are unsure how much they want to be involved in each other’s lives. Bywater perfectly captures the feeling of being the outsider in this family but wanting to show how he really can fit in.
While West beautifully captures the frailty of old age, her outbursts are hard to understand. It is impossible to tell if they are relevant to the past or the present, but it feels as if they should be.
Greg Marsanskis’ two-story set visually illustrates how these family members are tied together while being disconnected from one another. The top floor of the apartment, which has a spiral staircase to the lower floor, opens onto the street. The lower floor is in the basement.
Perkins has his actors use both levels equally. The difficulty of moving Momo in her wheelchair to the basement level to eat is just one of the many hurdles the family faces. The set also is an interesting contrast to the family’s middle class home back in Scranton and its planned retirement home on a lake.
The fine performances and high production values in Midcoast Actors’ “The Humans” almost overcome the flaws in Karam’s script. Perkins’ and his cast need to rid the show of the sterile pall that marred Sunday’s matinee before the cast can feel fully human to the audience.
Midcoast Actors’ Studio’s production of “The Humans” runs through Sunday at the Crosby Center, 96 Church Street, Belfast. For information, call 370-7592 or visit midcoastactors.org.