If you’ve read your Freud, you know that in German, the word we translate as “uncanny” is unheimlich, a word that derives from heimlich, which usually means “secret, furtive,” but which also has an older meaning of “belonging to the home, familiar, friendly, home-like.” These two meanings are actually related, through the dark fact that what “belongs to the home” is also often something that must be concealed or hidden within the domestic space – a secret or a dangerous impulse. As such, Freud explains, the unheimlich, or uncanny, is not the opposite of the heimlich (as the “un” would signify), but instead closely bound up with it: for something to be uncanny, it must not only be a little strange and mysterious, but also, on some level, deeply familiar.
Family, and the deeply familiar, are the subjects of Stephen Karam’s 2015 play The Humans. As are the secrets, dread, and fear associated with the uncanny. On one level, the play is a hyperrealistic portrait of a family dynamic, precisely observed. The action takes place at Thanksgiving dinner: Brigid (Valeri Mudek) and her boyfriend Rich (Arash Mokhtar) are in the process of moving into a spacious (by NYC standards) duplex apartment in Chinatown, an apartment scenic designer Michael Schweikhardt has rendered just bland enough to feel weird. Although the moving truck has not yet delivered their stuff, they have invited Brigid’s family to celebrate the holiday with them. It’s a slightly depressing affair, with paper and plastic utensils and folding table and chairs (which establishes, as Rich jokingly observes, a very low bar for future celebrations), and an air of unease hangs over the evening from the moment the action opens. That unease is amplified by a vague hint of supernatural menace in the apartment itself, which seems, from the get-go, at war with the family’s peace. The upstairs neighbor produces improbably loud thuds overhead that make the characters leap out of their skin; mysterious figures appear and then evaporate in the courtyard outside the window; lightbulbs suddenly go out, one by one; the plumbing and trash compactor intrude loudly on the family’s dinner; and pots and pans suddenly fall off the counters – the sound design, by Zach Moore, turns the apartment into an expressive seventh character in the play. As a result, on another level, the play invokes all the familiar tropes of a horror story, and although nothing terrifying actually takes place – indeed, very little takes place at all in this play – the horror genre’s sense of suspense and trepidation hovers over the action.
That feels right, because this is a family for whom the world has become a strangely and unexpectedly insecure and scary place. Brigid’s dad Erik (J. Tucker Smith) and mom Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) live in Scranton, where they have both been steadily employed for their entire adult lives in traditional middle-class jobs – he as a maintenance worker for a Catholic private school, she as an office manager. But their economic and psychological security is under threat now that they are shouldering the financial and emotional burdens of caring for Erik’s aging mother, Momo (Cecelia Riddett), who is in an advanced stage of dementia. Irish Catholic stoics who believe in overcoming adversity through hard work, Erik and Deirdre are riding a sea of apprehension over the precarious outcome a lifetime of hard work has yielded. Money is a concern for Brigid, too, an aspiring composer/musician with a mountain of student debt who gets paid under the table for restaurant work so that she can continue to collect unemployment benefits. Her older sister Aimee (Courtney Balan) faces an equally uncertain future: she has just broken up with her long-term girlfriend, and a chronic medical condition not only has undermined her chances at a partnership with her law firm, but also, she fears, may impede her chances of ever finding a new romantic partner. They are, in short, a family battling insecurity and fear on many fronts: fear of poverty, fear of death, fear of illness, fear of failure, and fear of being unloved and unwanted.
Playwright Stephen Karam has a keen ear for the passive-aggressive rhythms and flows of a family gathering, and his dialogue masterfully captures the simmering tensions, the little digs, the petty triumphs, the barely hidden resentments, and the teasing and button pushing that make family get-togethers so challenging, as well as the love, loyalty, and generous acceptance that make them so treasured. The timing of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s production could truly not be more apropos, and though the play often gives opportunity to laugh at this family dynamic, it also paints a picture that is probably rather uncomfortably close to home for many viewers who may be simultaneously looking forward to and dreading their own upcoming reunion with family for the holidays.
Director Pamela Berlin skillfully balances the realism in the acting against a quasi-supernatural setting to evince a creepy sense that the menace in this world is simultaneously within and without. The cast is excellent, utterly believable as a family accustomed to sharing one toilet (and the smells that go with it). Smith and Booker are particularly fine as the patriarch and matriarch. Smith is understated in his expression of Erik’s bewildered anxiety, his body language eloquently conveying a man who is restless with worry. Booker plays Deirdre with a broad accent (Scranton by way of Minnesota, best as I could determine), and though she is kindness personified, her Deirdre has a bit of hard toughness that serves her well when her daughters mock her.
The title of the play gets an oblique and glancing explanation when Rich enthusiastically tells Deirdre about his favorite comic book, in which alien monsters are frightened by stories about humans. Does Karam mean to suggest that humans are the monsters in our world too? Certainly, fear and anxiety were driving emotions that brought us the disaster that is currently occupying the White House, and in his perceptive snapshot of a family coping with those fears, Karam seems to have captured the disquieting “return of the repressed” (to borrow yet another explanation from Freud for the uncanny) that found expression in last year’s election.