(L to R) Margaret Shelby, L. Roi Hawkins, Cathy Barnett, Ellen Kirk, Katie Karel, Marc Liby. Photo by Cynthia Levin

The show that’s playing at the Unicorn Theatre through March 31, The Humans, is refreshingly hard to describe. But its Tony Award in 2016 for best play and its finalist status that year for the Pulitzer Prize for drama underscore its vital place in contemporary American society.

On the surface, the play is about a family that gets together for Thanksgiving, bringing their attendant drama with them. As in many such portrayals, the situation itself has built-in humor. However, the struggles that the characters are facing – illness, loneliness, aging, unemployment – are not funny, and the conversations are awkwardly real.

This is not just a family drama; there is much going on beneath the surface. As night falls on the city, lightbulbs in the apartment also start going dark. Strange sounds are heard from the apartment above. The family tries to keep up the holiday cheer, but an unsettling atmosphere begins to build. Eventually, the characters are revealing secrets and discussing dreams. The final scene brings the existential dread to the forefront.

The script is excellent. When it was combined with the slightly disorienting set (expertly designed and built), I spent the whole time feeling drawn to the family, while simultaneously feeling a little bit repulsed.

(L to R) Back Row: Katie Karel, Marc Liby, Margaret Shelby. Front Row: Cathy Barnett. Photo by Cynthia Levin

The cast plays off each other with great timing and charisma, but three actors stand out. Marc Liby plays the father so well that I almost forgot he was acting. It was as if a tired, blue-collar man who idolizes hard work just wandered in off the street and started talking. And whenever I see Cathy Barnett, I automatically think of her great performance in Grey Gardens, the 2010 musical at the Unicorn. But she matches that performance with this one, playing the religiously inclined mother who seems to be on the edge of a breakdown. And although it was the smallest role, Margaret Shelby plays the Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother with such a genuine presence that it was a kind of a shock to see her come onstage at the end, lively and smiling, and take her bow.

This is a play about fear. Not only the daily fears we talk about, but the deeper inner fears for which there is no solace. It’s a smart, challenging play that will leave you thinking about your own life.

“The Humans” plays at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., through March 31. Tickets: 816-531-7529 or unicorntheatre.org.

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