Katie Kerr, Alan Hanket, Katie Peabody, Mary Burkin, Ali Zahiri and Barbara Lee Bragg in CVRep’s production of The Humans. Credit: Lani Garfield

Live theater can sometimes lift our spirits and make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

That’s not what CVRep’s production of The Humans does. Instead, it grabs us by the throat and makes us think about the dark side of the human condition—illness, poverty, betrayal and death. There are occasional tender moments, with a laugh or two here and there, but overall, the story is quite disturbing.

Stephen Karam’s play premiered at the American Theater Company in Chicago in 2014. When it opened on Broadway two years later, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it won the Tony Award for Best Play.

The story is set in the ramshackle Manhattan Chinatown apartment of Brigid Blake and her boyfriend, Richard. The entire Blake family has gathered there to celebrate Thanksgiving. Brigid’s parents, Erik and Deirdre, have traveled from Scranton, Penn., for the occasion.

Erik, head of maintenance at a private school, has been having nightmares and panic attacks, while his wife, a devoted Catholic office manager, resents recently missing out on a promotion at work. Brigid’s sister, Aimee, is grappling with both the loss of her lover and her job at a law firm, as well as a major case of colitis. Also on hand is Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, Fiona “Momo,” who’s in the advanced stages of dementia.

Brigid and Richard have their own issues—she is a frustrated musician working as a waitress, and he is a 38-year-old college student anxiously awaiting the trust fund he will receive when he turns 40. They try to put on a brave face, even though their apartment has bars on the windows; the lights flicker on and off; and there are frequent loud noises coming from the unit above.

Not surprisingly, the mood at this Thanksgiving dinner soon deteriorates. Tensions bubble to the surface, and old resentments pour out. It’s a familiar scene; many of us have suffered through this type of holiday gathering at some point in our lives.

Erik and Deirdre wish their daughters lived closer, and can’t understand why Brigid and Richard don’t just get married. They’re all dealing with employment and financial issues. Caring for Momo, who’s mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease, is a burden. Erik’s nightmares may be a post-traumatic response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11. He and Aimee were caught in the middle of it, and were lucky to survive.

Throughout the evening, discordant, jarring sounds reinforce the dark feel of this play. Though the sounds are usually explained—a trash compactor, the subway, the neighbor loudly doing laundry upstairs—we sense that there’s more behind it. As the wine flows, and secrets are revealed, The Humans careens toward a shocking, enigmatic ending.

This is a true ensemble piece—and the acting here is strong. Arthur Hanket returns to the CVRep stage as Erik. He perfectly embodies the solid, stoic, working-class man who wants the best for his family. But underneath the surface is a raging mass of emotion—guilt, fear, anger and resentment. It’s an excellent performance.

As the long-suffering Deirdre, Barbara Lee Bragg is spot-on. She’s everywoman, an empty-nester who seems to have lost her purpose in life. She drowns her sorrows in food, booze and religion.

The ending of The Humans will leave you shaken for days afterward. The play is dark—but definitely worth seeing.

Mary Burkin is tremendous as Momo. With almost no dialogue, and confined to a wheel chair for most of the play, she manages to stay involved in the action and connected to the other actors onstage—not an easy feat. Anyone who’s lost a loved one to the scourge of dementia will feel a pang of recognition.

Katie Kerr is fabulous as the practical lawyer, Aimee. Her portrayal of physical illness, career letdowns and romantic trouble all ring true. The phone call she makes to her ex-lover in a desperate attempt to reconnect is particularly effective.

As younger sister Brigid, Katie Peabody is quite good. Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is never easy, especially with family drama thrown into the mix. Peabody ably coveys the struggle to keep the evening festive and the conversation civil, while maintaining a romantic connection with Richard.

Rounding out the cast is Ali Zahiri as Richard. He holds his own as the would-be son-in-law trying to hold on to his sanity amidst the Blake family chaos. It’s clear that he loves Brigid, and that he longs to be the successful breadwinner her family feels she deserves.

Artistic Director Adam Karsten, making his directorial debut for CVRep, puts his actors through their paces with great skill. He does an excellent job of creating an ominous, unsettling mood here.

The sound and lighting in this production are like another cast member—they are absolutely crucial. Huge congrats go to Karlene “Kiki” Roller and Joshua Adams (sound) and Moira Wilkie Whitaker (lighting) for meeting the challenge. As always, Jimmy Cuomo’s set is superb.

The ending of The Humans will leave you shaken for days afterward. The play is dark—but definitely worth seeing.

Oscar Wilde said that theater is the way a human can share with another what it is to be a human being. These days, we could all use a little more of that.

The Humans will be performed at 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 20, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $58 to $73, and the running time just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...

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