Review: The Humans (Canadian Stage and Citadel Theatre)

Cast of The Humans, Bluma Appel Theatre, Feb 2017

Tony-winning play The Humans takes to the Toronto stage!

Stephen Karam’s Tony award winning play, The Humans, opened at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Thursday evening. It’s a comedy/drama, funnier earlier on and more dramatic later, about a family Thanksgiving dinner that unfolds in real time, at just under two hours.

We’ve probably all experienced special occasion family dinners like this. Mom, Dad, Grandma (in this case Momo), and the adult kids get together. There’s joking and teasing and bickering and unsolicited advice and sometimes real tension. People talk over each other, little groups form, break apart, and form new groups; people laugh, sometimes they yell, sometimes they cry. They did in my family. And that’s what my friend Patricia and I loved about The Humans; they seemed like a real family.

Diedre (Laurie Paton) and Eric (Ric Reid) Blake and Momo (Maralyn Ryan), Eric’s mother, have driven from Scranton to New York to have Thanksgiving dinner with their daughter Brigid (Sara Farb) and her partner Richard (Richard Lee) in their new two level basement apartment in Chinatown. Aimee (Alana Hawley Purvis), their older daughter, has come from Philadelphia to join them.

But life isn’t quite working out the way the Blakes expected. Momo is lost in dementia and Deidre and Eric care for her at home because they can’t afford a care facility. They still have a mortgage and car payments.

Brigid is a composer, burdened with student debt, who works two bartending jobs under the table and collects unemployment. She’s just found out why she hasn’t been offered any of the fellowships she’s applied for.

Aimee is a lawyer who has been dumped by her firm and her partner and has ulcerative colitis.

Richard, meanwhile, seems to be doing ok. He’s older than Brigid, 38, a student who will inherit a trust fund when he’s 40. His biggest issue is hoping that the Blakes will like him.

If it all sounds grim, it isn’t. It’s life in the post 9/11 American middle class.

The play shifts from funny to sad to funny to poignant to angry to funny very quickly. One minute Brigid and Deidre are sniping at each other and the next they’re all holding hands and saying grace when Momo suddenly joins in. She joins in when they clap as well, and then picks up a serving spoon and prepares to eat from the serving dish.

This is very much an ensemble piece and the cast is terrific together. They pat a hand or arm in passing, there are rolled eyes and raised eyebrows off to the side, they interrupt each other, they anticipate each other’s responses. Through it all, Deidre and Erik hint at a deeper issue, and we kept waiting for it to be revealed.

There were some moments that stood out for me. Purvis, as Aimee, phoning her ex-girlfriend; the one-sided phone conversation was heart breaking as she struggled to sound upbeat and not cry.

Ryan, as Momo, who spent most of the play in a wheelchair occasionally repeating the same sentence (which I could not really understand), becoming suddenly enraged, screaming and throwing things. I think that must be the rage that people with dementia can sometimes feel when they realized they’re trapped in their body by their brain.

Paton, as Deidre, reading Momo’s email, a tradition at family gatherings. The one she sent to Aimee and Brigid four years earlier when the dementia was getting serious, saying goodbye; telling them not to mourn her, to dance more than she did, to drink less than she did. It made me think of my grandmother telling me goodbye when she was at about the same stage of dementia.

There was one thing about the play that I’m not sure I liked. There were elements that I think were supposed to be supernatural. Banging on the ceiling that was initially explained away as the lady upstairs, an all enveloping noise that was attributed to the trash compactor, lights that flickered off and on and then finally just stopped working.

I didn’t hate that part of it, but it didn’t add anything for me. They all just seemed like things that could happen in a grungy apartment building. I’m not so much for supernatural.

I also thought the ending was really pushing a metaphor.

Having said that, I loved The Humans. In the same way that Judith Bowden’s set took the front off the apartment so we could see inside, the play took the front off the Blakes so we could see inside them. Definitely worth seeing.


  • The Humans is playing until February 25 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St East)
  • Showtimes are Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday at 8:00pm, Friday at 7:00pm, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:00pm
  • Tickets range from $39.00 to $99.00 and are available online,  by phone at 416.368.3110, and in person at the box office.

Photo of Richard Lee, Maralyn Ryan, Sara Farb, Laurie Paton, Alana Hawley Purvis, and Ric Reid by Epic Photography