The Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving in unfamiliar territory: honesty. Try as they might to tread lightly with polite conversation, they find themselves uprooting long-buried secrets and resentments. Coming together is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately redemptive experiment, as they try to make it through dinner without falling apart.
Stephen Karam’s Tony winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize is onstage at the Santa Paula Theater Center through March 10. It is directed with heart by Jessi May Stevenson, who leads her cast through a family drama that navigates the complex terrain of love, loyalty, regret, mortality, failed hopes and fallen Towers.
The host of Thanksgiving dinner is Brigid, the youngest Blake sister, a millennial with something to prove to her family, herself and her older boyfriend, Richard (the always fun-to-watch Brian Robert Harris). Brigid (played with sincere emotion by Emma-Rose Allen) is proud to show off the couple’s new digs: a duplex (a handy staging device) in New York City’s Chinatown. Brigid’s parents, Erik and Deirdre (Michael Perlmutter and Angela DeCicco), don’t quite share Brigid’s enthusiasm for the quirky apartment, with its loud neighbors, faulty wiring and giant bugs.
Perlmutter as father Erik embodies the pain of a man haunted by tragedy and his own failings. DeCicco captures the emotions of a mother attempting to reconnect with her grown children while trying to see her way forward, even as she is anchored to a man who has cut her to the quick. Erik and Deirdre put on a brave face for their girls, but soon realize their daughters have secrets of their own.
The other guests include Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Hayley Cariker), who is struggling with health issues and a broken heart. Cariker taps into the anguish of a young woman battling forces she can’t control. Then there is Momo (Rosalee Calvillo), Erik’s elderly mother, who suffers from dementia and is confined to a wheelchair. Even though Momo is often relegated to the periphery of the action, Calvillo makes her presence felt.
Everyone is on their best behavior, but you can almost hear the grinding of teeth behind the smiles. It’s not that they don’t love each other. They do. They just don’t really know each other. It becomes abundantly clear that Richard is not the only outsider here. Every Blake, it seems, is a stranger in their own life.
Over the course of the evening, the walls come down because they just can’t bear the weight of the years any longer. Sharam’s play weaves humor and humanity throughout the drama, as he wrestles with themes as intimate as family and as global as 9/11.
Stevenson and the cast make the most of the clever work done by scenic designer Mike Carnahan, lighting designer Gary Richardson and sound designers Stevenson and Allan Noel. Together they’ve built a world that, depending on the moment, feels like a charming love nest or a buzzing hive of family history. The costumes by Barbara Pedziwiatr complete each character — from Erik’s rumpled blue-collar clothes to Richard’s upper-crust preppy look. Props mistress Gail Heck gives the cast plenty to play with. Stage managers Leticia Mattson and Colette Swan and producer Leslie Nichols round out the talented crew.
Thanksgiving with the Blakes is fraught, yet it holds a promise. Even though humans are indeed complicated creatures, in the end, maybe we all can see the light.
The Humans through March 10 at Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh Street, Santa Paula. Mature themes; not recommended for viewers under 16. For tickets and more information, call 805-525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.