Bright Lights, Small Town

My guess is that it is far more common to see high caliber plays about small-town US American culture produced somewhere off Broadway in New York than it is for a small-town theater company to deliver a world class performance about a play set in contemporary New York. For this reason, my expectations were not too high when I had the opportunity to photograph the preview to Stephen Karam’s play, The Humans, put on by the Mountain Community Theater in Ben Lomond, CA. Directed by Miguel Reyna with a brilliantly talented cast of actors, this play is a must-see for theater lovers and art enthusiasts located in the Santa Cruz County.

Choosing this highbrow psychological drama was an audacious starting point, but Reyna manages to pull off the incredulous with this production. This is largely due to an inspired cast who embody these archetypal American characters in an altogether convincing manner. The stakes are high, and this troupe of actors make you believe their emotions are real.

The emotive power of the cast is so formidable that a warning is warranted. You may experience an overabundance of feeling. If the goal of this kind of play is to create catharsis, to build tension in the viewer until a sense of pathos is achieved, then get ready to make Aristotle happy. If you have ever experienced the grief of dealing with serious difficulties among the people you care about most, you had better bring something to catch your tears.

There’s a fine line between the archetypal and the clichéd. That difference depends upon the writer’s ability to achieve a specific version of something commonly experienced. Whenever something scandalous or conflicting happens within a famous US family, media pundits often use the hack trope of imagining their discomfort at Thanksgiving. The Humans turns this often-used imaginary scenario as the setting for a play that delves deeply into dysfunctional families and the love that keeps them together despite everything.

Stephen Karam’s writing achieves this feat of making the general specific and the stellar cast of MCT take the writing to another level. Each character in the play suffers from their own distinct failures and secrets they would rather not reveal. When this family gets together for Thanksgiving, each of these shadows is gradually revealed. This darkness is a bitter contrast to the beaming light of affection they feel for each other.

Lighting is a major theme of the play as the lights continually go out causing the characters to react to the literal darkness. There is also the darkness of dreams and dementia haunting the scene. To achieve balance in the presence of this shadowy setting, the actors must shine even more brightly. This results in an emotional chiaroscuro. The duration of the play is painted in a contrast that is both beautiful and melancholy.

David Leach and Joyce Michaelson play the role of Erik and Deidre perfectly. As caring parents, they are slightly judgmental, but also empathetic, and their love is both combative and compassionate at the same time. Their affections and bickering oscillate back and forth. Their chemistry reveals a familiar feeling you find in couples who have been together for a long time.

The two daughters are both powerfully bright and painfully wounded. Solange Marcotte and Sarah Kauffman Michael play the aspiring but failing musician Brigid and the accomplished but struggling lawyer Aimee with style and strength. The play is set in Brigid’s apartment in lower Manhattan and their sisterly bond is a comforting counterpoint to the other conflicts in the family. Whatever problems may arise, these women have each other’s backs.

The generational alliance of siblings is warmly conveyed. The teamwork of the parents also provides a feeling of security bolstered by their religious belief. All the positive feeling they can muster is necessary to counter the sadness of the elder of the group, the grandmother Momo played brilliantly by Helene Simkin Jara. Afflicted with dementia, she haunts the gathering with her semi-conscious rants and serene interludes of deathly rest. If the play is a study of contrasts, hers is one of the most profound.

A newcomer to this dynamic family is the boyfriend hosting the dinner, Richard, played perfectly by Davis Banta. It requires a very understanding type to roll with the ups and downs of a family reunion and Davis both shows the painful awkwardness of trying to join in and the hope of a sincere love.

The set constructed at Park Hall is minimal enough to allow the relationships to be the focal point of the play, but also suggestive enough to provide a real flavor of New York. This is important because the play is set in post 9/11 Manhattan and this historical context is important to the family dynamic. In this way, the play achieves another great feat. It takes a national trauma and makes it personal.

Sometimes not expecting greatness is a good way to find it. With that said, I strongly advocate seeing this play. It is such an amazing accomplishment for a small theater company and underscores the importance of supporting local art. The theater is a place where our dreams and fears are externalized for an evening, and it helps us to get a handle on what it means to be human. The Mountain Community Theater’s production of The Humans achieves this lofty goal brilliantly.

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