Arts & Culture

Lean Ensemble’s ‘The Humans’ builds a Chinatown duplex on Hilton Head

Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “The Humans” takes place during a Thanksgiving family get together at a duplex in New York’s Chinatown.
Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “The Humans” takes place during a Thanksgiving family get together at a duplex in New York’s Chinatown. Lean Ensemble

Lean Ensemble Theater’s artistic director Blake White wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead.

It had been a long day. A trek to Charleston in a rented truck was ensnared with complications worthy of a Marx Brothers’ comedy. It began with some fast talking to make a last-minute vehicle switch when the rental proved too small for the free, 8-foot spiral staircase he was picking up. With help from TTS Studios, the theater construction company that had donated the stairway, he’d shoehorned it into the larger vehicle only to encounter another problem when he got to Hilton Head. The 300-pound beast had proven too unwieldy for the friends who’d been waiting at the HHPS Main Street Theatre to help unload.

What to do?

He looked around at the dumpsters behind the theater which sported a landscaping company name. “Yes, we’ll help,” the landscapers said. Using the men’s muscle, they wrestled the awkward load out of the cargo hold and carted it off into the bowels of the theater where it now awaits its star turn on stage in mid-October.

The staircase will be a connecting piece of the puzzle that, when assembled, will become the slightly eccentric two-story Chinatown apartment where three generations of the Blake family spars and quips through Thanksgiving dinner in Lean Ensemble Theater’s season opener, “The Humans.”

Throughout the course of the 90-minute play the family will roam the landscape of human emotions, up and down the steps and, in the case, of Momo, the wheelchair-bound grandmother, via a small rickety elevator.

“The Humans” playwright Stephen Karam had once lived in one of these pre-war New York City architectural jumbles. Much like his old apartment, the duplex in the play is one of those oddball patchwork “renovations” tailored to the needs and desires of tenants and landlords who’d cut up and reassembled these spaces over the decades.

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Shannon Robert’s set design for a Chinatown duplex for Lean Ensemble Theater’s season opener, “The Humans” Courtesy Lean Ensemble

In Lean’ s new production, scenic designer Shannon Robert would face the challenge of creating this structure, one that would offer theater-goers a view of action on both floors at once. Meanwhile Tony Penna, Lean’s lighting designer, would have to figure out how to illuminate the complex set, directing our attention to the action by spotlighting various characters while hinting at things happening in the shadows. In effect, Robert and Penna would turn the space into a living canvas, another character in this dark comedy-drama.

And what a character it will be…

Let’s step in.

The Blakes’ oldest daughter, Brigid, who has just moved into this ramshackle hodgepodge with her boyfriend, Richard, sees beyond the walls to the possibilities for a life-changing adventure in the newly trendy city. But when her parents, sister and grandmother come through the door, the clash of expectations kicks into high gear. As a result, the duplex, which at first appeared roomy, now feels cramped and a little oppressive, explained Robert.

Brigid’s parents, who’ve driven in from Scranton, Pennsylvania, look around in befuddlement. Here’s the city that Momo, the grandmother, had “almost killed herself getting out of.” The elder Blakes, after all, had come of age in the era when graffiti smothered every inch of the subways and bags of garbage piled up on the streets as the crime rate soared. Panhandlers and porn shops ruled Times Square. Then there was the trauma of 9/11.

Was this what their college-educated daughter — the first generation to attend college — had left the safety of the suburbs for? In their eyes, the Big Apple is still rotten.

Perhaps they had visions of Brigid living in a neat little condo in an upscale building. Instead, Robert points out, this “dump” she’s chosen is drab and cramped with weird proportions and unpacked boxes. The decor in the windowless basement living area consists of a card table and folding chairs plus a scruffy sofa. The only “artwork” is a bike hanging on the foyer wall. The bedroom sits above on the low-ceilinged second floor along with the only bathroom — a challenge for Momo in her wheelchair and for sister Aimee with her raging colitis.

And then there’s Brigit’s boyfriend Richard, who doesn’t quite have a job yet. To make matters worse, all this is punctuated by strange thuds from the apartment above and rumbling from utilities below.

It’s not exactly an Instagram-able moment as secrets and disappointments that have lurked in familial corners start creeping out.

But just as that spiral staircase connects the two floors, the Blake clan is connected by shared laughter, memories and family traditions. They join in singing old Irish melodies as they sit at the card table and pass the cranberry sauce and stuffing.

In the end, this Tony-award winning play is not a bad way to share a Thanksgiving dinner or a compelling night at the theater.

If you go

What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “The Humans”

When: Oct. 17-19 and 24-26 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 20 and 27 matinees at 2 p.m.

Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head

Tickets: $25 preview night (Oct. 17); $40 all other performances; $15 students/active military. Group rates available.

Details: www.leanensemble.org or call 843-715-6676.

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