The Humans is the latest play by Stephen Karam, author of Sons of the Prophet, a play with which The Humans shares many similarities.
Both plays feature multiple generations of immigrant families: the Lebanese Christian Douaihy family in Sons of the Prophet, and the Irish American Blake family in The Humans. Both families reside in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area of Eastern Pennsylvania, though the youngest generation has migrated back to New York City, the setting of The Humans. Each family has a failing patriarch or matriarch. In Sons of the Prophet, lame Uncle Bill presides over his nephews, Joseph and Charles because his brother and his sister-in-law have recently died. In The Humans, Fiona “Momo” Blake (Jean Moran) is the wheelchair bound demented matriarch of the Blake clan. Her son Erik (Keith Kupferer) and his wife Deidre (Hanna Dworkin) have traveled to the new New York apartment of their daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older live in boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker) for Thanksgiving dinner. Joining them is Brigid’s sister Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), suffering from both the loss of her job and her partner.
The occasion for each play is a holiday – Christmas in Sons of the Prophet and Thanksgiving for The Humans. The holidays allow the generations to clash on religion, among other subjects. Uncle Bill’s Maronite faith and devotion to Saint Rafka, and Deidre’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin have no room in the lives of their nephew or daughters. Both plays illustrate the slow secularization of the generations as each generation attempts to deal with often unendurable grief, pain, and fear.
The oldest generation has the traditional faith. They offer their troubles up “to the baby Jesus”, pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, and suggest a life of gratitude as the best response to misfortune. Uncle Bill says, “Rafka won’t let you suffer alone. Keep praying to her. All is well.” Momo’s disconnected ramblings probably arise from a similar faith. (Her faith blossoms forth lucidly and miraculously in the family’s traditional Thanksgiving unison prayer.) The next generation – Erik and Dierdre- has the ritual trappings of the faith, while the youngest generation can only rely on pop cultural fads and themselves.
In Sons of the Prophet, Joseph concludes “we’re at the end of the line,” a sentiment shared, if not spoken, by his generational mates in The Humans, Brigid and Aimee. There doesn’t seem to be any expectation that either the Douaihy or Blake family lines will continue. A fear of death, the final parting, seems to underscore the family’s traditional table singing:
Of all the comrades that ere I had, they’re sorry for my going away,
And of all the sweethearts that ere I had , they wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not,
I will gently rise and I’ll softly call, “Goodnight and joy be with you all!”
If Sons of the Prophet shows characters under enormous pain, The Humans reveals characters burdened by tremendous fears.
Mr. Karam has been blessed by a wonderful production at the intimate American Theater Company, supervised by the sensitive and imaginative director P.J. Paparelli. Mr. Paparelli has led his designers to fashion a stage setting which seems naturalistic, while exuding a mysterious theatricality. The actors are so well directed and that they seem like an actual family brought into the building for dinner. Not a trace of “acting” may be found in any of these remarkable players. So real are the performances that one tries to recall where one met these “people” before.
The unspoken question radiating from both of Mr. Karam’s two plays is “Why is there so much pain and fear? Why must life have so much suffering?
Mr. Karam invites us to ponder these important questions.
Both immigrant families in the plays have come to America as if to a Promised Land. When New York proved unlivable, they moved on to the Promised Land of Eastern Pennsylvania. In The Humans, the youngest generation has found the original destination, New York, more hopeful than Scranton, much to the puzzlement of father Erik.
Why doesn’t the Promised Land live up to its promise of peaceful green pastures? Why does the promise seem more alluring elsewhere?
What was the original promise, anyway?
The author of the letter to the Hebrews explains,
By faith [Abraham] made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” St. Peter elaborates, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call…The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
However, God’s promise is not realized in places or possessions, but in an ongoing relationship of communion with Him. The plays’ oldest generations have some of this wisdom and so enjoy more of God’s peace, even amid painful and fearful circumstances. The plays’ secularized youngest generation has none of God’s peace, so they are most battered by the world’s fears and pains. Father Stephen Freeman notes,
Secularism is the compartmentalization of God and religion, and everything else, into autonomous and unrelated parts of our lives. Secularism does not deny that God exists, but rather states that He has His place and does not necessarily affect other areas of our lives. But soon that compartmentalization leads to an exclusion of God altogether, as we create a world in which we live by our own reasonings. Thus is born a kind of Christian atheism, where we operate as if God were absent, perhaps even nonexistent. 1
The Humans differs from Sons of the Prophet in two important thematic ways. First, the setting is a sunlight-less two-story residence, directing the audience to think of The Humans vertically. Second, thinking vertically, the audience, along with the characters, discovers banging from above. The young people attribute it to the neighbor upstairs. Or might it be His thundering from heaven?
What is the actual cause of life’s unexplainable occurrences? The Humans is a mystery play.
Besides banging from upstairs, the lights go off, a metal pot mysteriously falls from the kitchen ceiling, and the apartment door closes, unaided, behind the exiting Erik Blake.
What’s going on here? Mr. Karam would like us to ponder this.
Jonah, Orthodox Metropolitan of All America and Canada, suggests a possibility:
Faith in our society has been compromised by secularism. What had been an integrated vision of God and humankind, of the divine and the created, in the “one-storey universe” has become a dualistic segregation of God from human life in the “two-storey” model, in which God is absent from the first floor, and people begin to wonder if there is Anyone home up there. 1
Perhaps God wants the people “downstairs” to be attentive to Him. As C. S. Lewis explains,
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. 2
Stephen Karam, with his wonderful play The Humans, stakes his claim as the America’s Chekhov for the 21st century. His play has at its core the hopes of the trapped sisters Olga and Irina,
There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries…. In a little while we shall know why we are living, why we are suffering…If we could only know, if we could only know. 3
1 Freeman, Stephen. Everywhere Present. Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.
2 Lewis, C. L. The Problem of Pain.
3 Chekhov, Anton. The Three Sisters.
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