The Humans @ Cadillac Palace

4 Stars out of 4

As Chicago Theatre Week approaches, a moment for a bit of kvelling:  While most cities get touring productions with pared down travel sets and lesser known actors, this is a city where Broadway shows begin.  And this is a city that gets top level performers for every tour: The Humans currently on view at the Cadillac Palace through Broadway in Chicago features TV stars (albeit stars with serious Broadway bonafides).  The theatre scene here is as vibrant and fascinating as anywhere in the world. So get out of the cold and into a theatre!

And one of the must see plays to check out is The Humans by Steve Karam. This 90 minute gem with no intermission is perfect for two hour metered parking, but it’s also perfect for a tight story with a building sense of tension, and a story that is a compassionate summation of life in these anxiety provoking times.

The show takes place on Thanksgiving and the Blake family is gathered in Brigid’s (acidly funny Daisy Egan) new Chinatown New York apartment for dinner.  It’s a duplex—which means some optimistic landlord cut a hole into the floor of a rat infested “garden”apartment to the basement and put a circular stairway in place, which presents a challenge for Momo, the wheelchair bound grandmother in end stage dementia (sensitively played by Lauren Klein). Set designer David Zinn has created a convincingly  horrible apartment with upscale aspirations on the Cadillac stage.  Erik Blake, the Dad with the awful sense of humor (played with depth and warmth by Richard Thomas) and his wife Diedre with her bum knees and passion for making everything right( a marvelous Pamela Reed) are fish out of water in the city. Big sister Aimee, (wry and warm Therese Plaehn) a lawyer with a chronic disease, who is in the midst of a breakup with her partner and her firm helps translate and navigate the foreign land of New York City.  Aimee’s frantically cooking boyfriend Richard (played with earnest kindness by Luis Vega) hovers on the outside of this tight Irish American family circle with its well-loved traditions, tight bonds and disruptive secrets.  As the evening wears on, caregiving Momo is exhausting, Dad gets too drunk to drive, the lights keep going out letting the family navigate in spiritual and literal darkness.  Things that should have been left unsaid are spoken.  Also as the evening wears on there are strange and terrifying noises outside the closed bubble of this rundown apartment whose two floors serve to isolate and exhaust everyone’s efforts to be and stay together.  The sound design by Fitz Patton activates your fight or flight instinct.  Like Beckett, Karam and director Joe Mantello build a sense of foreboding and danger, and The Humans joins the tradition of Irish, Irish-American plays which precisely illuminate the compelling tragedy of dysfunctional families which simultaneously nurture and destroy their members. There is a metaplot about the downwardly mobile nature of our economy which spits out the upwardly striving and struggling middle class into an impoverished old age working at Walmart. I won’t spoil the ending, which leaves the audience in an uncomfortable place, exactly where we probably belong as we confront the world outside the theatre. The Humans is a contemplation of the human condition and there is succor in knowing that you are not alone in this tragicomedy we call life.

Get to see this show quickly! The Humans is playing Tuesday through Sundays until February 11 at the Cadillac Palace Hotel at 151 West Randolph in Chicago.  For tickets and information, go to www.BroadwayinChicago   or to