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‘Humans:’ Norman Rockwell meets Noir

Expect to see 'Humans' added to the canon of Great American Theater

'Freedom from Want,' an oil painting created for 'The Saturday Evening Post' was inspired by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Address known as 'Four Freedoms'

A live play, a drama by an acting troupe finely attuned to each other working with material widely acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, is something beautiful to witness. It comes close to my experience of what happens in the office in my career as a therapist. As one goes deeper into the material greater meaning can emerge, from dissatisfaction and discomfort to competence and a sense of ease. That said the essence of this is not wrapped up neatly in a box with a bow on top. When I came across this quote my attention was piqued:

“If there’s a better acting ensemble working in America right now than the extraordinary cast of The Humans at the Ahmanson Theatre I’m unaware of its existence.

Stephen Karam’s 2016 Tony Award-winning Best Play captures contemporary American domestic life in such wincingly accurate detail that something at once eternal and urgently of the moment is achieved. The Humans has come to L.A. at full-strength.”

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times, for the full review of ‘Humans’ that recently closed at Ahmanson’s Center Theater Group.  This new American classic started as an Off Broadway production.

The thought here is to review “Humans” from the perspective of one of these characters presenting in my practice. This is a purely speculative exercise on my part and is not intended to be advice or a substitute for counseling. As Mc Nulty aptly observes, “The production, directed by Joe Mantello with an unerring instinct for the inherent theatricality of psychological truth, is grounded in inescapable reality.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpepikAJsdc

The family talking about therapy.

Here’s how I imagine it. My office is in Philadelphia though it could be anywhere. New patient Aimee Blake’s (Cassie Beck), age 33, presents herself to this therapist two weeks after Thanksgiving. Patient expresses invasive and disturbing day and night time thoughts about her younger sister Brigid’s (Sarah Steele) safety after spending time at her barely unpacked new home. Brigid is the truth teller in the family and Aimee is the heavy lifter. Brigid impulsively spills the beans about troublesome family dynamics and Aimee cleans up the mess in the aftermath.

As the therapist I insert that the patient’s fears may also be a wish to be more like her sister insofar that she may need to do some spilling too. Patient’s own ramshackle state may resonate with the run down state of the tenement apartment Brigid shares with her fiance Richard (Nick Mills) in lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero which was also flooded in Hurricane Sandy.

Ms. Blake has numerous worries about her own health, her career and financial stability, grandma Momo’s (Lauren Klein) slide into senility, and her parent’s (Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney) floundering finances in retirement.

First move is to redirect the client away from the details of the narrative and back to the sense of inadequacy and defeat so that we can clear the path to strengthening her connection to hidden resources. This recent family reunion was deeply stirring. Interwoven with the hilarity, this raucous clan’s darkest fears and greatest weaknesses were laid bare. Articulate about her anxieties and with a sense of humor and compassion for herself, this patient expresses being extremely overwhelmed.

Patient is currently entertaining a methodically thought out plan she characterizes as a, “fantasy-mare” Typically risk averse, Aimee is reluctant to pull the trigger due to the nagging sense it is an irresponsible move she will later regret.

Patient professes to love lawyering though she is exhausted and burnt out. Even as a child Aimee was known as being “serious” and “outspoken,” an ardent advocate for herself and others she perceived as the underdog. An ‘ah-ha moment’ for Aimee is to connect the dots and realize she is approximately the age of her best friend’s attorney parents she recalls idolizing.

They like her had outsider blue collar roots who inspired her to dream big. She loved the air of gravitas about them and their posh lifestyle. Unlike Aimee, they had each other to cling to when the going got tough. Ms. Blake is currently single, 90 days out from a break up with a long term girlfriend. She notes this should have been their time to celebrate the three year anniversary of first meeting.

Adjustment to adult life has perceived as smooth sailing with manageable obstacles until now. Playing by the rules and paying her dues only to be passed over for partner feels terribly unfair, even unjust. Aimee majored in political science with a minor in English in college, took the GRE’s the summer after college and enrolled in a local law school.

Patient’s idealism has been tempered by the type of law she must practice with her pricey academic loans to repay. A decade of grinding experience interning first and now working long, often tedious, hours in top law firms rife with political backbiting has taken its toll on her health.

Aimee has a plan but lacks the confidence to pull the trigger into actuality. Patient intellectually knows that talk should not be confused with action. Grasping the idea of something should not be confused with doing something about it. Talking about her plan excites and fills her with hope. Thinking about setting her plan into action fills her with dread.

The body won’t wait. Patient believes the scuttle butt around the office. A contributing factor to being passed over partner was likely related to the many medical absences due to her worsening ulcerative colitis while her team was embroiled in a big case. Patient feels guilty about this but also knows her condition is serious. She is close to requesting a six month leave from work knowing she will likely get three months with a clause to revisit the issue and extend it another three months if necessary.

Aimee is faced with two medical routes one conventional and one alternative. Patient is terrified by the surgery and feeling rushed, almost bullied, into this option with little interest by her doctors into alternative, less invasive treatments. Surgery will leave her with an external colostomy bag for the foreseeable future which is abhorrent to her. Most likely she will need to stay at an after care facility before going home to an empty home with a nurse visiting as needed. Her parents already are in caretaker burn-out mode with Momo and she detests being a burden to them or her sister who seems dependent and lost.

The less invasive treatment would entail renting her home and traveling to an Indian ashram known for promising reports of integrative Ayurvedic approaches to her condition using regenerative medicine and nutrition therapy. Even if patient could find this treatment closer to home, it would cost three times the price including air fare and living expenses.

Even if it were ineffective Aimee has wanted to visit India forever. Conceivably the Ashram option could allow her to rest up and become stronger while buying time for better treatments or drug trials to emerge. If surgery was still necessary Aimee believes she would be in a better position to undergo that option.

Patient has never done anything like she is currently proposing. Aimee winces when she laughs off suffering from ‘impostor syndrome.’ She loves belonging to the professional class with all its perks and status but feels over exposed to the psychosocial stressors of managing high expectations with fewer supports at this time.

Patient is a relationship person who misses the buffer it created in contrast to her rough and tumble profession. Her supportive friend group is being tested by rifts due to the hard feelings around the break up. Their household was the informal clubhouse for the ‘gang.’

As the eldest child born when her parents were in their early 20’s Aimee is a natural nurturer and caretaker. The problem with this role reversal is the child is set up to fail as they do not have the maturity or life experience to successfully raise their parents try as they might. No wonder mother and daughter have similar gastro-intestinal symptoms though Aimee’s are worse.

Though newly fired father can hardly afford it, his pride would not allow Aimee the gratification of using her personal account at the firm to order the family a van big enough to hold her grandmother’s wheelchair. The convenience was expensive but deemed necessary so they did not have to take the subway to the train station on the way home, just like this ‘fantasy-mare’ the patient has in mind.

Aimee has been out as a lesbian since her senior year in high school. This news flopped at first with her Irish Catholic parents. While framing their concern that life is hard enough without adding gay to the mix, she is well aware they’d prefer she was straight.

In terms of societal discrimination, Aimee’s belief in a strong work ethic and self discipline have previously carried the day. She has always congratulated herself for having a self directed goal oriented plan to unfold to in life. That is until recently.

It doesn’t feel right sharing her numerous disappointments to others in her world. Everyone seems to be going through ‘something.’ Patient knows she is better off than many others.

Aimee weeps. She might walk away from the job if she were healthy. If she resigns COBRA is prohibitively costly and she is not up to finding a new position to match the excellent benefits she has now. Either way, she can hardly believe the words as they come out of her mouth. What if she were to cash out funds from her 401k, pay the penalties and live on this hard earned money for at least six months?

Ms. Blake is not suicidal. When asked about suicidal ideation patient re-states that though she is no longer a practicing Catholic or attached to a faith community the prohibitions inculcated against suicide in her growing up in rural conservative Pennsylvania still hold. Patient would not consider taking her own life knowing how this would devastate her parents and younger sibling. Once she regains her health, patient feels whole new vistas could open to her.

Patient expresses guilt over leaving her parents. Resentment intermingled with pity that their financial situation is so precarious. There’s no shortage of revelations as Aimee begins to gain a perspective. Her private misfortune are centered on a serious health issue to be managed but other than that her life holds promise. Her fears about her parents and sister are another story. She is not in charge of them or the decisions they make.

As Mc Nulty expounds, “The play’s vitality springs from the affection and annoyance, the laughter and anxiety, the tenacity and growing sense of defeat of family members who, no matter what is thrown their way, will always be lovingly and exasperatingly connected.” He goes on, “Although constructed with painstaking realism, “The Humans” is shot through with a sense of surrealistic foreboding. Characters tell one another about their terrifying dreams, and nerves are so jangled by the unfamiliar environment that when a cockroach runs across the floor it becomes almost a full-blown emergency…But for all the tantalizing horror-film hints, it’s everyday life that turns out to be the most fearful proposition of all..Intimacy is achieved along with breadth.”

So it’s not just Aimee and her family struggling to stay afloat as flood waters recede and threaten to rise again. A companion of mine at the play, Lewis Perkins, suggested that Karam should have called his play, ‘Norman Rockwell Noir,’ with its existential precariousness reverberating through family bonds.

The play was such an interesting counterpoint to a fine dinner beforehand at Il Bambino a small Italian restaurant on the outskirts of downtown LA two miles from the theater. It’s attached to the home where the chef owner has lived most of his life. At the table next to ours was a working class family of three middle aged adults all in their 40’s, one man and two women, with three children ranging in age from 6 to 12. Not once did they engage with their smart phones. Though I could hear them ring once or twice, no one picked up. Imagine they all talked to each other throughout the meal. Something tells me they would have enjoyed this play too.

Originally published at onmogul.com

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