NEW YORK — During post-show talk-backs, playwright Stephen Karam always laughs when people ask why he saddles his characters with so many problems. He remembers fielding those kinds of questions with his dark comedy “Sons of the Prophet,” which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In that play, his characters wrestle with death, grief, health issues and lack of insurance, sexual identity, and financial difficulties.
“What family isn’t dealing with these kinds of things?” Karam wonders, during a recent interview. “That’s what multi-generational families are facing all the time. There’s a young person trying to find work or figure out their career. There’s an older person thinking about or planning for retirement. Somebody is sick or dealing with health problems.”
The fractious-yet-loving Blake clan in Karam’s painfully funny “The Humans,” which won the Tony Award for best play on Broadway in 2016, can relate to these same issues. They, too, are grappling with the economic, social, and cultural anxieties and sense of loss that afflict so many working- and middle-class families these days. The touring production of “The Humans” comes to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre March 13-25.
The Blakes, hailing from Karam’s own hometown of Scranton, Pa., are gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving in the spacious-though-scruffy Chinatown duplex of strong-willed youngest daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her boyfriend, Richard (Luis Vega), who’ve just moved in together. Parents Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) have traveled into Manhattan with Erik’s mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who has Alzheimer’s and is in a wheelchair. Eldest daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a lesbian lawyer, has come in from Philadelphia.
The family’s affection for one another is palpable through the wisecracks and familiar chatter, yet cracks in the foundations of their lives become apparent as the evening wears on. Brigid and Deirdre keep clashing over their divergent life choices. Aimee, who’s still heartbroken after a painful breakup, suffers from ulcerative colitis, and her health is now impacting her career. The parents are struggling to care for a worsening Momo and wonder how they’ll ever afford retirement. And something heavy appears to be troubling Erik. Financial anxieties, Karam says, “are dripping throughout every inch of the play.”
“The beauty of Stephen’s writing is that none of this is ever baldly stated,” says Thomas, best known for playing John-Boy on “The Waltons” and special agent Frank Gaad on “The Americans.” “When characters talk about the problem with college loans and the problem with pensions, and two people having to work when they’re old enough to be able to stop working, it’s never in boldface. It’s all buried in the writing, and so we experience it in the theater the way we experience it in life.”
Indeed, Karam, 38, cautions, “I don’t think I could write a good play if I was setting out to write about the death of the American middle class.”
As he began thinking about the play, Karam acknowledges that he was feeling “really anxious and fearful” — about money, his career, health issues, aging relatives, the loss of loved ones, and what he calls “losing the romantic love of someone I cared about.” But he couldn’t figure out the best entry point to write about “the things that were keeping me up at night.”
“So the idea for the play started with a question,” he says. “What if you could find a way to write about this creeping feeling of dread and these existential fears that a lot of us carry as we move through our lives, in a story that actually conjured up the dread and anxiety I was trying to explore? But also make people laugh!”
While perusing in a used bookstore, he discovered the 1937 bestseller “Think and Grow Rich,” a self-improvement tome with a chapter about the six “ghosts of fear” that every human encounters. “Something about that really stuck with me,” he says. “I thought what if each character is carrying the weight of one of these human fears?”
Karam, a Brown University graduate whose sister lives with her family in Needham, says he became intrigued by the idea of fashioning “a true genre collision,” mashing up the social realism of the kitchen sink drama and the family dinner play with elements of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller.
“To me, the genre of the psychological thriller is baked into every inch of the play from start to finish. It’s the DNA of the thing,” he says. “The entire play has been built around taking a story about a family having dinner on a holiday and slowly bending it and making it strange. It really is using Freud’s ‘The Uncanny,’ this idea of building a house before you can haunt it.”
Says Thomas of his troubled patriarch: “You’re watching Erik go through the terror and panic of this existential crisis and his fear of abandonment, and he gets the audience to believe in the numinous quality of some of the things that he’s experiencing. It’s like how in the dark, if a curled piece of rope looks like a snake to you, then the sense of fear and panic is going to be just as real as if it was a snake.”
Karam once lived in a basement apartment on the Upper West Side, not unlike the one seen in the play. He had a window that looked out onto an air shaft that filled up with discarded cigarette butts tossed by people living higher up in the building. Offering no view of the outside world or even the sky, the space had a sometimes-eerie quality. “People who had been there would just laugh because it was uncomfortably close to what you see on stage,” he says.
‘The genre of the psychological thriller is baked into every inch of the play from start to finish.’
The play’s two-level set, contained within the large black void of the stage, appears as if the entire building has been sawed off on one side, with the insides of the walls and the floorboards visible. “Thornton Wilder said, ‘Non-naturalistic scenery intimates the universe.’ So we wanted to find a way to conjure that cosmic, numinous quality.”
While there is some tumult and chaos during dinner, “The Humans” isn’t the kind of knock-down-drag-out family drama where the audience should worry about “a plate being smashed over somebody’s head or the daughter getting thrown down the stairs because she’s a lesbian,” Karam says.
“I was interested in the ways that a functional family, full of huge strains of unconditional love, can experience these scary and tenuous moments. The emotional currencies feel really powerful, even in these moments where people are trying to get along and doing their best to connect to each other but occasionally missing. It’s this tension of people who love each other so much that they can actually wound each other more deeply.”
At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, March 13-25. Tickets from $25, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.