‘The Humans’ provides a window into the family dynamic at Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Humans' at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — When “Hamilton” won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2016, it garnered so much attention that you might have missed the winner of Best Play that same year.

Don’t worry: You can now catch Stephen Karam’s acclaimed production of “The Humans” right here in D.C. as the show kicks off its first national tour at the Kennedy Center from Jan. 9-28.

“It was a big winner and for good reason,” said actor Richard Thomas, known for his roles on “The Waltons” (1971-81) and “The Americans” (2013-16). “It’s a wonderful, wonderful play.”

The story follows Erik and Diedre Blake (Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed), who travel from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a basement apartment in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown to have Thanksgiving dinner with their daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan), her boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), their other daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn) and ailing grandma Momo (Lauren Klein).

“It’s about a family coming together over Thanksgiving and all of the ramifications of that,” Reed said. “Today, people don’t live in the same city. … When they come together and fly in, there’s a new member, new partner, new something and the dynamics that come from that.”

The one-act play moves rapidly over a fast-paced 90 minutes without an intermission.

“It’s like a bullet train,” Reed said. “There’s so much laughter in this play. It’s such a joy to do a comedy, but I think a lot of the laughter comes from the audience recognizing themselves. They laugh at the human condition that we aren’t just observing but that we actually live on a day-to-day basis. On Thanksgiving this year, my husband kept looking at me. We were loading the dishwasher and he said, ‘This is just like the play! I can’t get away from your play!'”

Beneath the style, there’s the thematic substance of a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“There’s a reason it’s called ‘The Humans,'” Thomas said. “It’s so much about what it is to be a human alone in the world [and] to be humans together. … It must be like looking through the window at a family during Thanksgiving dinner and just watching them together.”

As we gaze through that “window,” eerie elements go bump in the night with David Zinn’s Tony-winning scenic design and Justin Townsend’s Tony-nominated lighting design. The creaks and crashes are a metaphor for the geographical and generational culture clashes.

“The play deals a lot with culture and with economics,” Thomas said. “This couple [of parents] from Scranton, a real working-class couple, coming into Manhattan and into that world, culturally and economically, they become self-conscious. The play looks with a great deal of compassion and a great deal of understanding at people on both sides of that cultural divide.”

You’ll emerge from the play with more empathy for the folks around you.

“There’s a great spiritual teacher, Jack Kornfield, who likes to say, ‘Just remember: Everyone you meet is going through a great struggle,'” Thomas said. “The beauty of this play is that each character is going through a very particular set of challenges in their lives. So you get to see each individual’s passage, but also how they all support one another and ultimately care for each other and help to get each other through. It’s really beautiful in that way.”

However, Karam doesn’t hit us over the head. The audience is left to read between the lines.

“[The characters] don’t talk about it,” Reed said. “We don’t give ourselves permission to talk about what we’re going through. That’s true in life — you have to get up and get on — and this family is like that. But it’s a play for the audience to discern what’s happening underneath. It’s not named, it’s not like Eugene O’Neill, where everyone has these big speeches about their sturm und drang. … What’s underneath is unearthed by the audience, not by the actors.”

If any actors can pull off this subtlety, it’s Thomas and Reed, who have become household names playing John Boy in “The Waltons” and Marlene Knope on “Parks and Recreation.”

“Amy Poehler is a gem,” Reed said. “She is a wonderful, wonderful actor and a pearl of a girl.”

In fact, Thomas still gets people thanking him for his Emmy-winning role as John Boy.

“I was checking my bags at the airport to come to Washington the other day, and the guy checking my bags said, ‘I come from a small village in Tobago. We had one TV set and the guy who owned it used to take it down to the living room on Sunday nights and everybody from the village would come sit in his house and watch ‘The Waltons’ once a week.’ … Thank God it’s something I’m proud of and enjoyed. We stay in touch. We’re very close, like a second family.”

No matter the decade, no matter the audience, the family theme is universally “human.”

Click here for more on “The Humans.” Hear more with Richard Thomas & Pamela Reed below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Richard Thomas & Pamela Reed (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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