‘Eat the Chard, Say a Hail Mary’

An Interview with Playwright Stephen Karam
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“Compassion” is a word that tends to come up when critics talk about the plays of Stephen Karam. Reviewing his newest play, The Humans, for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote: “Mr. Karam’s comedy-drama depicts the way we live now with a precision and compassion unmatched by any play I’ve seen in recent years.” The same critic described Karam’s previous play, Sons of the Prophet—a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize—as “written with insight and compassion, not to mention biting wit.”

In both that play and The Humans, Karam’s Broadway debut, loving families struggle with maintaining connections across generations despite the gaps created by increased social mobility and changing attitudes toward religion. The children look for a balance between autonomy and interdependence; the adults try to pass on their wisdom in a way the younger generation won’t reject. The references to compassion make sense: Karam seems to care about his characters, with all their flaws, too much to depict any of them as less than fully human, and the families in his plays are bound together by love as well as pain.

The Humans introduces us to the Blakes, an Irish-Catholic family from Northeastern Pennsylvania who have gathered for Thanksgiving at the brand-new, mostly unfurnished New York City apartment of their youngest daughter. The evening plays out in real time on a split-level set—the apartment is a dim basement duplex—with no breaks or blackouts. Over the course of ninety minutes the audience comes to know each member of the family and the fears he or she is struggling to confront: Aimee, the older daughter, has just broken up with her long-term girlfriend and is now facing a frightening health crisis. Her sister Brigid, not long out of college, is excited to be making a home with her older boyfriend, Richard—a plan her mother dislikes—but is losing faith in her dream of a career in music. The girls’ parents, Erik and Deirdre, have financial problems they can no longer hide from their daughters, and they are worn out caring for Momo, Erik’s mother, who is lost in a fog of dementia.

Erik and Deirdre worry about their daughters’ safety, physical and emotional—is it wise to live in Lower Manhattan, after 9/11 and Hurricane Irene? Do they understand that marriage “can help you weather a storm”? Deirdre brings a statue of the Blessed Mother as a housewarming gift. “I know you guys don’t believe,” she says. “Just keep it for my sake…I feel better knowing that you have it.” Brigid rolls her eyes: “Mom, I will absolutely keep this in a drawer somewhere, thank you.” For her, adulthood means embracing an urban worldliness; she sends her parents a list of “superfoods” to look for at the grocery store and serves a “rainbow chard salad” because “it’s packed with nutrients.” As a family the Blakes have reached an uneasy but familiar détente—they pray “Bless us, O Lord…” in unison when they sit down to eat, but then, as tempers flare, peacemaker Aimee reminds them: “No religion at the table!”

Alongside the back-and-forth of the family’s conversation runs a ghostly current of suspense; lights go out, ceilings thump. It is as though the fears the Blakes are trying to keep buried are forcing their way to the surface. The Humans turns out to be a naturalistic comedy-drama with the emotional intensity of a thriller. And critics love it, both in Chicago, where it premiered in 2014, and now in New York, where the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, has just opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. It’s the beginning of a very big year for Karam: the Roundabout is producing his adaptation of The Cherry Orchard on Broadway in the fall, and two films he wrote (one based on his play Speech & Debate and the other an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) are scheduled to premiere in 2016 as well.

I’ve been a fan of Stephen Karam’s since we were doing high-school plays together back in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and so, after seeing The Humans, I was excited to sit down with him and discuss how the hometown roots we share have influenced his work.

 

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly: Both The Humans and Sons of the Prophet look at the connections and the distance between generations in families. In both plays you have kids who have fallen away from the religion they were raised in, and then are left with the question of: what replaces it?

Stephen Karam: Absolutely. I thought about this interview while watching the show last night, and I was astonished at how big a role religion and spirituality and God [play in it]. When critics talk about the play, they use the word “supernatural,” but—maybe because of my own upbringing, and being an altar boy, being raised in the Catholic faith—I guess I always saw it as more of a spiritual play. Less Twilight Zone, to me, and more of a play that has that searching quality you talked about. Searching—across the generations, with people at different points of their lives, who are both in the church and moved away from the church—how does that faith sustain the family, how does it complicate relationships, and then, ultimately, how does it strengthen them—and, for those who have fallen away, what does replace it?

MWO: The religious tensions in Sons of the Prophet, which is about a Lebanese-American, Maronite Catholic family, come especially from anxiety about the end of a heritage and what we owe to our ancestors. In The Humans I see more of a focus on how the parents want their kids to have religion in their lives because they think it can keep them safe, or help them stay connected. They want their daughters to have what it has given them.

SK: Yeah. I think the parents are really trying to meet their daughters halfway, in their own faltering way. And the daughters are trying, as well—maybe not even doing as good a job. But a lot of these clashes are about the father just trying to understand his own kids, his own flesh and blood. “I’m watching you put your faith in organic vegetables, and showing up for yoga…but to you it seems ludicrous to sit in silence in a church and say a prayer. That seems silly to you, but you’ll go do hot yoga for an hour.”

MWO: Right, and then talk about it as a centering experience.

SK: Yes! Maybe this is the Thanksgiving where even the younger daughter, post-college, is starting to glean that she is on a quest—I don’t know that she’s quite figured out that she’s looking for something to fill that hole. At the end of Sons of the Prophet Joseph says something to the effect of how much he misses having his father’s faith around, even though he hasn’t quite figured out how, as a gay man, to stay in it completely. There’s this [sense that] something’s missing.

MWO: In both plays I was moved by seeing people praying onstage, and praying in a specifically Catholic way. And authentically. People think they understand Catholicism and get it wrong all the time. So, watching Uncle Bill praying the rosary in Sons of the Prophet, I thought, “Those really are the Sorrowful Mysteries! And in the right order too!”

SK: What cracks me up is how many people thought that I named the Sorrowful Mysteries for comic effect. They said, “Well, how do you actually pray the rosary?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And someone said, “Well, it can’t actually be called ‘The Agony in the Garden.’”

There have actually been a lot of clergy and priests and rabbis who have come to see The Humans, and that’s made me so happy because I have to believe that someone somewhere is putting in a good word for it. It’s not an experience that I’ve had before. But priests are very interested in theater in New York! It’s this lovely reminder that priests are just people, too, who need to be entertained.

I know how much respect I have for people of all different faiths, but especially for my family, who are the most important people in my life, and who are still practicing, and deeply religious. But I think because I’m a gay man, and because that created a very on-the-nose conflict as a teenager, coming of age, just wondering—How do I keep my faith? Especially when you’re hearing the worst blanket statements about who you are as a person. About, from my perspective, the way God made me. And suddenly you’re at church and you hear someone pray, “For gays and lesbians, that they might realize their [sins].…” That’s happening less and less now, but all it takes is one of those when you’re nine, ten, eleven, twelve—and it’s hard to describe to people who aren’t, because of course if you’re not gay, an eleven- or twelve-year-old wouldn’t even remember that that happened.

I guess what I’m saying is, because of that conflict, I’m always very self-conscious and assume the way faith or religion might come up in my plays will seem very harsh to people of faith, or who are currently practicing.

MWO: One thing from The Humans that stayed with me was the moment when the family says grace—the effect it has on Momo reminded me of how my own grandmothers, in the last stages of their dementia, retained their connection to religion, and the prayers, and the sacramentals. They knew that stuff even though the rest of them was gone, and that seemed to be such an anchor and a comfort for them. I’m aware of being kind of an outlier in our generation in continuing the practice of this faith—and now I’m thinking about passing it on to my kids, and why am I passing it on to my kids, what do I want them to have. And that’s a big part of it, I think, if I’m honest with myself—at the end of my life, I want it to be there for me. And I want my kids to have it at that deep level.

SK: Writing plays for me is often an act of looking at basement-level fears in terms of where they come from. The best work that I am able to do is when I am willing to write about questions I haven’t quite figured out, or things I’m really wrestling with, things that keep me up at night. When I go to those basement-level fears—and this play is full of the underlying existential horrors of this family—without a conscious effort I end up coming back to faith and spirituality and the search for it. It ends up playing such a major role in every play that I write. In some ways there’s a part of me that also feels the need for it.

And so I do think it’s fascinating to see a play where everybody’s sort of, in various ways, uprooted, and you see the older generation, the parents, whose faith has been something concrete that has guided them through a specific set of hurdles and circumstances. And you see Aimee, the older daughter—probably a lot of her quote-unquote faith was this very real, meaningful, deep, true love that she had, not only for her family but for her girlfriend, who is now gone. So I feel like she’s looking for any sort of ballast.

If I’m proud of anything, it’s that the play isn’t trying to offer a solution—if anything, the play might provide a kind of comfort in the way that these people still find each other to be anchors, even as they push each other’s buttons.

I was reading a short story of Chekhov’s today… Just thinking about somebody whose writing always felt deeply obsessed with faith, and yet somehow not, at the same time. It felt like that moment when you’re reading a novel or short story and you feel someone from across a stretch of time illuminate something in your own life—and in this case I felt like he was illuminating something in my own play better than I could even articulate. [Reading from his smartphone] “In reality, life was arranged and human relations were complicated so utterly beyond all understanding that when one thought about it one felt uncanny and one’s heart sank.”

Maybe [it struck me] because it has the buzzword of “uncanny”—the lens that I’ve been exploring a lot of these issues through. But I think The Humans is also deeply obsessed with a higher power, or with the acceptance of pain and suffering and all of these things that seem beyond human comprehension, beyond understanding.

MWO: We used to love to study murder mysteries. Stuff like The Last of Sheila and Deathtrap and Getting Away with Murder. The Humans is not a “puzzle” play like those, where everything is wrapped up tightly at the end—kind of the opposite; it’s very unresolved and open. But the building of suspense and dread is so well calibrated. Am I right to sense an influence?

SK: Completely correct. There actually is one, very undercover “puzzle” element to this play. And that is simply that I was reading a chapter in a bookstore from this terrible book called Think and Grow Rich. All those self-help books make me laugh. And there’s a chapter about the big human fears: the fear of ill health, the fear of poverty, the fear of losing the love of someone…. Being obsessed with psychological thrillers and murder mysteries, I thought I was going to write something much more genre, and I thought that [list of fears] might be a way to start thinking of characters, assembling a family and thinking about different generations coming together for a meal. As you can clearly tell, I didn’t write the silly campy murder mystery I set out to write. I ended up growing deeply attached to these people with these big fears but big hearts and, hopefully, a lot of fight in them. So the play, against my own will, became a family play that I think is infected by the thriller genre. Instead of a thriller about a family, it became a family play that oddly has these elements of a ghost story, or the kind of movies and plays that we used to love talking about.

If Sons of the Prophet is about how acknowledging your pain, or naming it, can help ease its grip a bit, [The Humans is about how] acknowledging these fears when they creep up can make things a little less scary. Aimee is cracking jokes because she’s actually so terrified about the disease that she has and what it might mean for her. I think the father in the play is terrified about losing his mother, and so he keeps talking about how it’s “just not one of her good days.” He knows she’s sick, and he knows that she’s dying, but it’s the way we all behave when these unthinkable things start to creep closer to us, like the idea of losing people that we love. It is unimaginable on some level. And, going back to what you said, it’s what always bring me closer to clutching a rosary and saying a prayer—what do you do with something as unfathomable as someone you love just being gone. Just being here, and then one day… not.

My mom’s sister lost two of her kids, and living through that, even just as someone who loved her and my cousins—part of me thinks that’s informed a lot of the plays that I have written. There’s so much that’s just so unknowable about: why did that suffering happen? You get to a point where you realize that if there isn’t something greater out there, a higher power, a God—I don’t know how there couldn’t be, because otherwise what is the alternative, but despair?

MWO: The critic Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune that The Humans “is a work filled with uncommon compassion for the kinds of people whom the theater often ignores.” Did you set out saying, I’m going to write plays about people I don’t see onstage?

SK: No! I don’t know, on some level I guess we all feel like underdogs. I remember being a freshman at Brown University and not knowing what a WASP was. We were reading an Edward Albee play, and—it was just a moment of accepting, certainly that I wasn’t very worldly, but also that a lot of the plays that I’d been reading, let’s say other kinds of family plays, were speaking a foreign language. So in creating this family it felt, not like I was serving up “uncommon compassion” for those who are often not seen on the stage, it just made me realize that so much of great American drama has been about a certain kind of dysfunctional family, and maybe my interests are in the kind of strange dysfunction that exists even among deeply functional families. Maybe that’s what he’s talking about, that this is not a play about a group of people where the question is will one of them smash a glass over the other one’s head after they have too much to drink, will a table be overturned, or will there be wrestling or food-throwing…. Let’s put it this way: You don’t really question the family’s love for each other.

MWO: And you, as a playwright, don’t condescend to anybody, even as they’re condescending to each other, and you’re illuminating that dynamic within families. I think about that moment when Richard tells Brigid, “Be nicer to your mom.” I’m finding myself very sympathetic to Deirdre, maybe because I am a mom now, and I’m like, “Oh my God, my kids are gonna be rolling their eyes at me someday….”

SK And what I’d like to say to you about that is that I completely agree with you, and I feel the same way. Every night when I watch it I’m like, “Tonight, just be nicer to your mom!” I actually feel it, even though I wrote it and I know what Brigid has to say, I’m like, “Maybe tonight she will be a little nicer!”

What I love most about the mother in the play is that she is coming at it from all fronts. Here is a woman whose faith means everything to her, but who has this acceptance of where her daughters are at, and so she’s forwarding this Scientific American article, trying to find ways to articulate it.… And there is this loving acceptance of her daughter’s sexuality—which has just all happened off stage—

MWO: That was something that I really recognized, and I was glad you wrote it that way. The family has a lot of issues, but having a gay child—

SK: That is just not one of them.

MWO: Maybe it was an issue for them fifteen years ago, but not today.

SK: Exactly. I don’t think it was the happiest day of their lives, but—unconditional love is very much a part of this particular family.

But there’s this unspoken history that exists between any mother and daughter, no matter how deep and loving the bond is, twenty-five years of being raised by someone, there’s a kind of deep history which means that there are shortcuts to getting on each other’s nerves. Aimee has a better coping mechanism, but Brigid wants something that is just unrealistic to expect from Deirdre. Because Deirdre is coming at it from a place of wanting to impart all of this knowledge and her own experience, and this idea of what she really believes in her core is going to make her daughter safer, happier, healthier. You know, not rainbow chard only. It’s like, “Eat the chard and then…say a Hail Mary!”

Published in the May 6, 2016 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

This story is included in these collections:

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