It’s possible, with art, to create something so real it almost becomes difficult to find meaning in it. The Humans, Stephen Karam’s fascinatingly mundane Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, exists very firmly in that uncomfortable zone. Without hard scene transitions, music, or anything to bring you out of the story, the play provides a slice of life narrative that is almost excessive in its realism.
Taking place over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner, the trials and tribulations of the Blake family are slowly unraveled through a long series of freewheeling conversations (and frequently, arguments). By the objective standards of capitalism, each of them has failed in some foundational aspect of their lives. It pushes an uncomfortable interpretation of the American Dream, that having a family that loves you and believing in yourself is not enough. That, at the end of the day, financial success or failure is in your hands, and if you don’t have it, you do not deserve to be happy.
I can deeply relate to the series of awkward encounters as they play out, that sublime experience of socializing with people you love but don’t really know. This last weekend, I learned my cousin was planning on interning with a government anti-drug organization and was initially very surprised. Upon reflection, though, I realized there was no reason to be surprised my lack of knowledge about his decisions. I could tell you what sports he played in college, his favorite desserts and the name of his first girlfriend. But his values? His biases? His failures? Of these, I could tell you nothing. The play juxtaposes this clash of a family who don’t mesh in humor or personality, with brutal moments of honesty. Beyond that, the characters are fundamentally incapable of being honest with either themselves or each other.
They express a deep unhappiness at the state of the world without identifying any particular source of this dissatisfaction. Indeed, that is the one criticism I can honestly level at this performance. The Humans is such an earnest and succinct play, that it’s difficult to know what, if anything, one should take away from it. Day to day life, after all, does not come comfortably bundled with inherent meaning. The Blakes struggle with economic uncertainty, trust, love and conflict like any family, and like reality I too struggled to know why it mattered.
As a technical achievement, however, the San Jose Stage Company’s performance of The Humans is an absolute triumph, and a wonderfully authentic examination of the myriad ways the American Dream can fail.
Graham Smith is a lifelong writer of prose and lover of theater. He lives in San Jose, CA. mostly selling wood veneer, spoiling his parents dog, and purchasing very excellent books he won’t read.