BLUE HILL — Someday, a play will be written specifically for a virtual Zoom format or, then again, perhaps, with a COVID vaccine on the horizon, it won’t be necessary. Let’s hope!
The New Surry Theatre, however, is not waiting for either of those eventualities, and have instead, courageously forged ahead with a virtual performance schedule.
Last spring, Artistic Director Lori Sitzabee had serendipitously chosen “The Laramie Project” as the NST spring production — before knowing that theaters would be closing. As it turned out, the play, which is a series of monologues, was well-suited to a Zoom format.
This time Sitzabee’s choice of Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” seems to have been more deliberate — one can almost see her eyes lighting up as she read through the play about a family gathering for Thanksgiving, thinking, “yes, yes, this could work, we could pull this off!”
And they have. “The Humans,” which opened last Friday and has two more performances this weekend, is a triumph of ingenuity on many levels, and a refusal to let a mere pandemic stop our local theater companies from providing thoughtful dramatic entertainment to their communities. Huzzah!
Here’s how they did it.
Instead of having the extended Blake family’s six members sitting around a foldout table in the youngest daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard’s largely unfurnished Chinatown apartment in New York, they are all stacked neatly in their Zoom boxes on our screens and presumably beamed from the actors’ own homes.
Although they are actually miles apart, Sitzabee has plotted out the four corners of each character’s largely neutral boxes so well, that wine glasses get filled, plates and other props get passed from one to another pretty darn seamlessly.
By initially showing the virtual audience a sketch of the large, but rather bleak, two-floor apartment and having tech director Christopher Raymond read many of the ensuing stage directions, we get a sense of both the physical space and the action that takes place in the course of this funny, contentious, moving and utterly relatable family gathering.
It takes no time to figure out who’s who at this table. There’s the dad Erik, (a terrific Randall Simmons in an unusual, for him, “everyman” role.) Despite an attempt to make his two daughters think life is just hunky dory on the parent front, Erik is clearly playing his cards close to the chest. The more he drinks; the more is revealed. Erik’s wife Deirdre ( an equally excellent Tracy Green) also is eager for her daughters to believe all’s well, deflecting her own stresses from caring for her increasingly demented mother-in-law (a sadly convincing Cherie Magnello who is a “non-present” presence at the table.)Deirdre prefers to dispense motherly advice, and cling to old family traditions than acknowledge things are changing at a pace she is having trouble keeping up with.
Brigid (a delightfully convincing Kate Hall, who has a lovely singing voice to boot)is more grounded in the present, but despite having a devoted, if rather awkward boyfriend and high hopes for their new Chinatown digs, she is feeling stalled in her career as a composer. Her boyfriend Richard, (nicely realized by Patrick Harris) is clearly trying to find his niche in this loving but complicated family but is pretty much relegated to serving them as their issues bubble to the surface and he simply doesn’t have the history or family vocabulary to participate in a meaningful way.
The other daughter Aimee (poignantly played by Morgan Pfohl) is in a bad place this holiday. She just lost the love of her life; is suffering from a serious gut ailment that sends her to the loo every 15 minutes and believes she has reached a dead end in her law career. The sweet and desperate holiday phone call Aimee makes to her ex is simply heartbreaking.
Still, with all the vicissitudes in their lives as individuals and as a family, the love shines through. As the different layers of the Blakes are peeled back, we grow to love them all, too — Erik’s unspoken 9/11 trauma that now invades his dreams, Deidre’s sense of being invisible at a job she has performed for 40 years, Aimee’s fears of a bleak, loveless future, Brigid’s frustration at…. well you know, family stuff, that we all have dealt with in one form or another.
Saturday’s performance was not without glitches — Magnello’s character Momo was late to arrive on screen and although Vanessa Hawkins briefly sat in for her, it was initially confusing why this lovely, young woman was chosen to play a demented old lady (Not that Magnello is remotely typecast here.) When the real Momo eventually appeared, one couldn’t help imagining the behind the scenes kerfuffle that must have been going on until the — I’m assuming tech glitch — got sorted out. And then I created my own glitch when I pulled down the cast list menu mid-performance, to check an actor’s name and was suddenly booted out of the show as if I’d been caught with a ringing cell phone. It only took me about 30 seconds to get back, but it was disconcerting, and had I been in a real theater I would have been thrown out for cursing.
The production could have used stronger sound effects effort as there is a lot of dialogue about the noisy upstairs neighbor and the sounds of the city — noises one feels in a staged version would have been like having another character at that table.
Those of us who will be missing our own families this holiday; the laughter and tears these gatherings often involve, might want to join the Blake clan this weekend at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 27-28 for “The Humans.” Oh, and there will be “pig smashing,” a Blake family tradition that I might just adopt. For ticket links and info, go to newsurrytheatre.org. And a quick reminder, read the program notes and cast bio before or after, not during the show! To purchase tickets for the virtual performances, go to newsurrytheatre.org.