How set design represents theme in 'The Humans'
When designed and implemented a certain way, a set can successfully convey the themes of a play. The way the stage is set can create mood, but can also create a physical place, with tell-tale signs and clues pertaining to the plot and theme, that the characters can interact with. In Stephen Karam’s The Humans, the intricate set design of a New York apartment in China Town does these things so well the setting can be seen as a metaphor for one of the play’s major themes: the appearance that everything is alright when it is, in fact, not. The characters mimic how they cage their emotions, their thoughts, and lives from each other by how they move around and utilize the set. “Mr. Karam underscores his themes, of life’s fragility, and our vulnerability to forces beyond our control, with inspired symbolism that nevertheless doesn’t break with the play’s keenly observed realism” (Isherwood 2016). To create this underscore of themes, it is the actors’ interaction with the set and the psychical set design together which creates the successful metaphor.
The Humans illustrates a moment in time: the Blake family gathering for Thanksgiving. The dinner is hosted by daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard at their New York apartment. The apartment has an upstairs area connected to the main floor with a spiral staircase, and entrances on either floor. This deems the apartment “spacious” in the couple’s eyes, but the space quickly feels cramped and cumbersome as Brigid’s family arrives, bringing with them their secrets and baggage. Like the Blake family, the setting has multiple layers. What an outsider may see on the surface is not the whole story; there are other situations, feelings, etc. layered away. The characters then use the set design to their advantage: running and hiding from each other and their own truths.
The apartment becomes a difficult place for the family to connect with each other. This is especially apparent with the grandmother, Momo. As someone who is wheelchair bound, she needs to use the elevator outside of the apartment to get from one floor to the other. Although a tedious task for the person assisting her, the family is happy to help because they care about her. Momo also suffers from dementia, which makes it difficult to communicate with her and attend to her needs. Likewise, the family deals with the difficulty of caring for and communicating with Momo because they love her. This is the most obvious use of the set design mimicking the multi-layered ideals of the play, which makes sense, as Momo’s wheelchair accessibility and dementia may also be the most obvious issues to an outsider that the Blake family encounters. Yet, as the play progresses, the family’s deeper, more secretive issues are slowly divulged. It is then the audience sees the family attempt to psychically and emotionally hide from each other in the apartment.
Older sister Aimee, still reeling from a recent break-up and suffering through her ulcerative colitis, takes solace in the bathroom or sneaks away upstairs to contact her ex-girlfriend. Aimee uses the two-story apartment to hide away from her family and deal with her pain privately, whether it be accepted and physical (as with her colitis) or out of shame and emotional (as with her break-up). The family knows that she’s dealing with both of these issues, just as they know the apartment has two floors, but cannot connect to or understand her—they can’t get on the same level—when she keeps skulking away. Yet, a connection is made, briefly, between Aimee and her father Erik when they are alone on the second floor. On page 66, Karam writes:
Aimee cries, unable to hold it in. Erik holds her.
Aimee: Ugh…I miss her…
Aimee: …all the time…
Erik: …we know…
Although little is said between them, they are communicating. Here, there is a connection—they are on the same level.
The largest reveal of the story is Erik’s affair and the loss of his job. He skirts around telling his daughters what has happened, just as he keeps running off to check the game score on his smart phone. He’s only able to get reception on the top floor near the window and that separates him from the family. When Erik finally tells Brigid and Aimee his secret, they are shocked, but they seem to hide their displeasure, just as they hide everything else. Karam writes on page 132:
Erik: I cheated on your mom, with, uh, a teacher from school and…we’re okay but, I realize this is a lot to just [unload]…you guys okay?—
Aimee: [Uh, not really…] Brigid: Just…[keep going]…
Erik: —we worked through it, okay?, / we met with Father Quinn and…
In this scene, Erik drops a bomb on his daughters. Both girls are stunned speechless, but also gloss over the reveal. Do they not care that much about their parents’ relationship? It’s more fitting and true to character that the daughters bottle up their feelings and squirrel them away, layered under the concern for their parents’ finances.
Even with all the family’s secrets and passive aggressive communication, there is yet another layer added to both the set design and the underlying themes: the upstairs neighbor who makes grotesque, frightening thuds and crashes, and the disturbing sounds of the trash compactor in the basement. “But to family members on edge, it becomes something so much bigger that it eventually yanks the play out of one orbit and into another” (Green 2015). Brigid is quick to reason away the disturbing noise to a trash compactor or a 70-year old Chinese woman, who she doesn’t want to disturb. Brigid’s apathetic response to such unsettling sounds is a spot on metaphor for how the Blakes deal with their most private issues. “By the end, with no violation of realism, we have entered the realm of horror, only the horror is not external, any more than Erik’s nightmares of a faceless woman, or Momo’s unknowable dread, are external. They are all, I suppose, projections of the amassed ‘stoic sadness’ of a family for whom depression is so deep and structural it is almost a lifestyle, or even a philosophy” (Green 2015).
At the end of the play, Erik finds himself alone in the kitchen and is confronted with the scary noises from the basement. This may be a metaphor for dealing with his deep seeded issues, much like the nightmares he has been having about a faceless woman. His fear is the same in both of these situations—he fears the unknown and the unseen as he his losing his way in life.
The thoughtful design of the stage and the actors’ navigation of the space create a mirror of the themes in The Humans. The success of the mimicry comes from the Blakes’ masterful ability to hide from each other both physically and emotionally. The characters are passive aggressive in their communications and turn a blind eye to their own issues, creating feelings of deep rooted depression and despair. These themes and moods are successfully echoed in the way the characters move around the apartment and respond to the unsettling, unseen noises above and below them.
Green, Jesse. “Theatre Review: The Complex, Funny Sadness of The Humans.” Vulture. October 25, 2015. Retrieved May 15, 2018. http://www.vulture.com/2015/10/theater-review-the-humans.html
Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘The Humans’ Depicts a Family, and a Country, Under Pressure.” The New York Times. February 18, 2016. Retrieved May 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/19/theater/review-the-humans-depicts-a-family-and-a-country-under-pressure.html
Karam, Stephen. The Humans. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2016.