The Humans is an oddly generic title, but it perfectly fits Stephen Karam’s Tony Award–winning play, currently making its Southern California debut at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. This taut tale of three generations of an unremarkable American family who gather to share Thanksgiving dinner is, in the deepest possible sense, humane. The characters’ feelings for each other — a constantly changing combination of affection and resentment — will strike a chord in nearly everyone, as will the underlying emotion they all share: an overwhelming sense of disappointment with life.
Brigid (Sarah Steele), not long out of college, is starting to doubt she will achieve her dreams. Her older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), having broken up with her lover and failed to make partner at her law firm, is girding herself for a life of frustration. Their taciturn father, Erik (Reed Birney), is watching helplessly as the fruits of his own modest achievements slip away. And his mother (Lauren Klein), suffering from old-age dementia, is a mass of confusion and fear, only snapping to life during the pre-meal prayer.
Her unexpected recitation of those familiar words is an extremely moving moment — one of many. But there’s also much humor here, mainly in the acidic retorts of Brigid and Aimee’s mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), who is deeply wounded, annoyingly dogmatic, and impressively determined to push through life’s obstacles. The superb cast, under the subtle direction of Joe Mantello, conveys the tough truths of Karam’s writing with startling effectiveness. “We’re okay,” Erik keeps repeating, and as Birney’s devastating performance makes clear, he isn’t convincing anyone, including himself.