Museum visitors know that realism and abstract art ask you to use very different interpretive muscles. With a realistic piece of visual art, you may know exactly what you’re looking at while admiring the way the artist conveyed it. If it’s abstract, you’re free to react with whatever emotions or ideas it inspires.
Yet some art manages to be both, such as Park Square Theatre’s production of Stephen Karam’s “The Humans.” On its surface, the 2014 play seems a slice of realism, a 100-minute visit with an American family having Thanksgiving dinner together in real time. We observe the shared habits these kin have developed over time, and learn of their latest struggles.
But it also lends itself to a lot of “What does it say to you?” Is it a commentary on the shrinking American middle class? Is it about fear as an increasingly controlling part of our lives? And with which member of the family do you most closely identify?
So call it a kind of theatrical Rorschach test, but the Park Square production is excellent. Even if folks are divided on their interpretations or appreciation of it, I think they’ll find much to admire in the acting and technical expertise.
If “The Humans” builds too slowly for your tastes, you can approach it as an intriguing character study. Every actor onstage contributes admirably to fleshing out this family dynamic, lending depth and dimension to the three generations gathered in a two-level apartment in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood.
The matriarch, “Momo,” is living with dementia, her communication limited and unclear. Her son, Erik, grows increasingly anxious, haunted by memories and nightmares. His wife, Deirdre, is world-weary and worried, but masks it beneath caustic criticisms of their daughters. They are Aimee — who is braving a gathering storm of relationship, health and employment issues — and the Thanksgiving host, the economically stressed Brigid, who has just moved into this apartment with her boyfriend, Richard.
For much of “The Humans,” you’re observing the give-and-take, affection and hostility of a particular American family, but — from the first time Deirdre says to Erik, “Don’t wait until after dinner” — it’s hard to escape the feeling that change is about to sweep in and the various conflicts will soon be eclipsed by something bigger.
Under the impeccably detailed direction of Lily Tung Crystal, Park Square’s production feels very much like an actual family gathering. Granted, the actors playing Erik and Deirdre – John Middleton and Charity Jones – are real-life spouses, but the bonds with their children feel genuine, as does the heartbreaking combination of love and exasperation between Middleton and Angela Timberman’s in-and-out-of-reality “Momo.”
Among the others, Dexieng “Dae” Yang deserves kudos for lending such layers to Brigid. In a drama that can go in dour directions, Yang brings heart and humor to the family confab, most memorably when she and sister Aimee (Laura Anderson) get girlish in one-on-one encounters.
Kudos also to Erik Paulson’s bi-level set — which often invites you to split your attentions between one part of the family and another — as well as Katharine Horowitz’s sound design and Karin Olson’s lighting, both of which amp up the anxiety at key points.
Middleton handles the play’s ambiguous final scene masterfully, and this well-executed production makes it feel like the jumping-off point for some lively conversations in downtown St. Paul’s neighboring bars and restaurants.
- When: Through Oct. 9
- Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
- Tickets: $55-$40, available at 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org
- Capsule: An expertly crafted slice of life about family and fear.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at [email protected]